Just a second splits the top 12 ahead of qualifying
Mark Webber put in a late flying lap in this mornings second and final practice session in Bahrain to scorch his Williams to the top of the timesheets with a lap of 1m 29.527s, more than half a second faster than Michael Schumachers 2004 pole position time.
Williams languished down the field for most of the morning as Webber and Nick Heidfeld ran with heavier fuel loads than their opposition. As the track warmed up during the two sessions and more rubber went down the times began to plummet.
After BARs Jenson Button had gone ahead with a lap of 1m 30.324s in the second, beating Michael Schumachers fastest first-session time of 1m 30.552s, it was Kimi Raikkonen who first breached the 1m 30s barrier round the Sakhir circuit (and Schumachers 1m 30.139s pole from last years inaugural race) by taking his McLaren to 1m 29.810s. And as more teams took out fuel, that time soon became a sitting duck. Jarno Trulli bettered it with 1m 29.798s for Toyota, followed by team mate Ralf Schumacher (who had earlier spun luridly in Turn 10) with 1m 29.711s. But right at the end Webber did his 1m 29.527s to settle the issue.
However, at one stage Michael Schumacher was on an even faster lap for Ferrari, taking only 28.4s to complete the first sector (compared to Webbers eventual 28.6s). However, the Ferrari driver was blocked by David Coulthards Red Bull in the second sector, and abandoned his lap. It was a clear sign that Ferrari are back in the hunt, and they go into first qualifying this afternoon feeling very optimistic.
The fly in their ointment remains Rubens Barrichellos gearbox problem, which prevented the Brazilian from running yesterday afternoon. The team lack spares for their new F2005s, which were rushed to Bahrain ahead of their originally intended schedule, and the troublesome transmission has been rebuilt pending the arrival this evening of a new replacement from Maranello. The plan is to conserve the existing unit for qualifying. Accordingly, Barrichello stayed in the pits all morning.
Behind Webber, then, the order was Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella, who made an error in the final sector in his Renault, Trulli and Raikkonen. Series leader Fernando Alonso was happy enough with his sixth fastest lap of 1m 29.825s, while the other quick runners were the impressive Pedro de la Rosa who took Montoyas McLaren to 1m 29.864s, and Christian Klien who did an equally good job to push his Red Bull round in 1m 29.896s.
Schumachers best recorded lap was 1m 30.080s which left him ninth ahead of late improver Heidfeld on 1m 30.290s; Button, who did not improve on his early 1m 30.324s; Coulthard on 1m 30.558s and Takuma Sato on 1m 30.902s.
Jacques Villeneuve showed a marked improvement in form for Sauber, running team mate Felipe Massa close as they recorded respective times of 1m 31.001s and 1m 31.126s for 14th and 15th places. The Jordans were also close, with Narain Karthikeyan on 1m 32.498s and Tiago Monteiro on 1m 32.686s, the Portuguese driver going off briefly in Turn 10 at one stage. Christijan Albers aced Patrick Friesacher at Minardi, the Dutchman lapping in 1m 33.715s compared to the Austrians 1m 34.409s.
The stage is thus set for the first qualifying session this afternoon, when any one of five teams could challenge for the overnight pole.