Spaniard and Italian repeat Sepang qualifying battle
Renaults Fernando Alonso and Toyotas Jarno Trulli headed qualifying again in preparation for tomorrows Bahrain Grand Prix, but Michael Schumacher was a menacing third in the new Ferrari.
As the track temperature sidled up 13 degrees Celsius since this mornings practice times, the first qualifying session proved to be a scorcher in more ways than one. After Michael Schumachers speed this morning there were widespread fears in other camps that Ferrari would dominate - and they were very nearly realised.
Pedro de la Rosa kicked things off, and the Spaniard did an excellent stand-in job for McLaren by lapping in 1m 30.725s when the track was at its least clean. Jenson Buttons turn came and went and realised his worries about running early, as he could only coax 1m 30.957s from his BAR. This was faster than Takuma Sato, who ran second and lapped in 1m 31.113s, but would only be good enough for 12th overall.
Much was expected of Mark Webber after practice, and when his turn came the Australian did not disappoint, pushing his Williams round in 1m 30.592s to dislodge de la Rosa, but just as quickly he was demoted by Giancarlo Fisichella, though the Italian would have been faster than 1m 30.445s had he not
lost grip in the last corner.
A lull followed as Kimi Raikkonen came up short for McLaren with 1m 30.594s after also losing out at the end of the lap, but Michael Schumacher did the business for Ferrari with a smooth 1m 30.237s. In the warm circumstances, it seemed that might be enough.
Brother Ralf spoiled his lap for Toyota almost straight away, understeering wide in Turn Four, but then Nick Heidfeld popped in a very quick lap to jump up to second on 1m 30.390s in the second Williams. That left Trulli and Alonso as Schumachers challengers. The Italian is one of the best qualifiers in the game, and soon redefined things with 1m 29.993s for Toyota, but the Spaniard is a match for him and immediately stamped his authority with fastest times in the first and second sectors. At one stage he was almost half a second up, but even though he lost time sliding through the final corner his 1m 29.848s pushed him into what is fast becoming his customary slot.
The first seven, then, were Alonso, Trulli, M Schumacher, Heidfeld, Fisichella, Webber and Raikkonen, while a surprise eighth was Christian Klien who has been doing a fine job all weekend for Red Bull Racing. This time he lapped strongly in 1m 30.646s, edging de la Rosa back to ninth. Felipe Massa rounded out the top 10, with a very well-driven lap of 1m 30.933s. The Brazilian was the only leading driver to go quicker than he had in the morning, despite the hotter conditions.
Behind Ralf Schumacher, Button and Sato, David Coulthard was a disappointed 14th on 1m 31.211s, unhappy with the balance of his Red Bull. Behind him came Rubens Barrichello, driving with his fingers crossed that his repaired gearbox would hold together. It did, but asking him to go fast with so few laps under his wheels was a tall order and after locking up going into Turn One he had to be satisfied with 1m 31.826s.
Even less happy was Jacques Villeneuve, who lost his morning pace compared to Sauber team mate Massa and understeered round in 1m 32.318s after running very wide in the last corner.
Once again Narain Karthikeyan and Tiago Monteiro were close, the Indian recording 1m 33.190s and the Portuguese 1m 33.424s. Christijan Albers continued to impress at Minardi, showing Patrick Friesacher the way round with a lap of 1m 34.005s compared to 1m 34.848s.
With the times so close it will be easier to lose ground than to make it up in final qualifying tomorrow, but for sure race strategies will be crucial in another very hot race which will particularly take a heavy toll on tyres.