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Button's double top in practice 03 Apr 2004

Jenson Button (GBR) BAR Honda 006 in the pitlane.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 3 April 2004

BAR and Williams dominate ahead of qualifying

Jenson Button boosted BAR’s hopes for the Bahrain Grand Prix – and the prospects of a great race – when he set the fastest times in both of this morning’s free practice sessions.

In the first the young Englishman lapped in 1m 30.062s to head Williams’ Juan Pablo Montoya and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher.

In the second, Ralf Schumacher became the first man to dip into the 1m 29s when he went fastest for Williams after 16 minutes of the second session with 1m 29.690s. Montoya all but matched that with 1m 29.696s, but Button settled the issue with 1m 29.552s to the delight of BAR.

“Jenson did a brilliant job in both sessions,” said team principal David Richards. “We are very hopeful for qualifying.”

Further boosting the team, Takuma Sato was fourth fastest on 1m 30.239s, edging out Schumacher’s Ferrari on 1m 30.407s. The champion had two dusty moments. His team mate, Rubens Barrichello, was only eighth on 1m 30.513s.

Renault had a mixed morning. Jarno Trulli was fastest for a while and ended sixth on 1m 30.472s, but Fernando Alonso was only ninth on 1m 30.774s after several off track adventures.

Toyota staged an improvement, with Cristiano da Matta entering the top 10 with 1m 30.499s for seventh place and Olivier Panis doing likewise in 10th spot on 1m 30.934s.

Although there was a lot of activity overnight to alleviate a problem with sharp raised drainage covers – believed to have caused the punctures suffered by Michelin runners Fernando Alonso, Anthony Davidson and David Coulthard – there was still work to be done after the Scot spun again in the first part of this morning’s session, due to a punctured right front tyre. During the interval Charlie Whiting and other FIA officials again inspected the covers, and there were no problems in the second part.

There was further aggravation for McLaren when Kimi Raikkonen’s attempt to leave the pits at the start of the second session was hampered by a technical problem and the MP4-19 had to be pushed back to its garage. The Finn eventually got going but had a couple of off-course deviations and only managed 1m 31.320s for 11th place. Coulthard was less fortunate. Though he managed only four laps, he did not actually record a lap time after losing too much time having fire extinguishant cleaned from his car.

Once again Christian Klien was quicker than Mark Webber at Jaguar. The Austrian had one spin but lapped in 1m 31.331s to the Australian’s 1m 31.384s. Like the Jaguars, the Saubers were together. Giancarlo Fisichella, feeling slightly better than he did yesterday, was 14th on 1m 31.433s, Felipe Massa 15th on 1m 31.557s. Both had spins, Fisichella in Turn 15, Massa right in front of one of the Toyotas.

Jordan’s Nick Heidfeld had a reliable run to 16th on 1m 32.816s to chase his old team, while Giorgio Pantano backed him with 1m 33.34s.

Gianmaria Bruni was again the faster Minardi driver, on 1m 34.590s, but Zsolt Baumgartner spun away his chances in Turn Seven and had to settle for 1m 35.901s.

Though it is still not possible to know what fuel loads individual teams were running, the belief here in Bahrain is that the times this morning were pretty representative and that the leading Michelin runners seem to have a slight edge. We’ll know more after qualifying, but right now the prospects for a competitive race are looking very bright.