Three-team tussle in final practice 11 Mar 2006
Things really started to smoulder in Bahrain this morning, as Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher battled for the fastest time and were separated by only 0.011s at the end of an hour of high-speed action. In the end the honours just went to the Englishman with 1m 31.857s for Honda, from the Germans Ferrari on 1m 31.868s. And Fernando Alonso was just a tenth behind in third.
Button set the initial pace, with Jacques Villeneuve, Kimi Raikkonen, the Renaults of Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella and then Schumacher and team mate Felipe Massa taking turns to star.
High winds made the track very dusty, so the times to begin with were some way off Fridays. Towards the end, however, things improved. After Massa had gone fastest with 1m 32.826s, a time that remained good enough for fifth overall, Alonso displaced him with 1m 31.975s before Schumacher responded with his best time and was in turn ousted by Button.
Fisichella was fourth with 1m 32.050s, and after Massa, Villeneuve staged a late improvement for sixth with 1m 32.913s. That just withstood a late run from Jarno Trulli, who pushed his Toyota to 1m 33.038s.
McLarens highest-placed runner was Raikkonen in eighth on 1m 33.262s, while Juan Pablo Montoya was only 15th on 1m 34.406s. Its safe to say that several runners and riders were keeping their powder dry and doing fuel runs, so the times cannot yet be regarded as completely representative.
Ralf Schumacher claimed ninth for Toyota with 1m 33.523s, and Mark Webber took his Williams round in 1m 33.876s to round out the top 10.
Christian Klien was the fastest Red Bull runner after a late improvement to 1m 33.944s, while Rubens Barrichello lapped his Honda in 1m 34.009s. Nick Heidfeld was right behind him for BMW on 1m 34.094s, then came David Coulthard on 1m 34.142s.
Debutant Nico Rosberg was 16th on 1m 34.434s, with Christijan Albers breathing down his neck for Midland with 1m 34.541s just ahead of team mate Tiago Monteiros 1m 35.026s.
It is quite possible that the two Toro Rosso drivers, Tonio Liuzzi on 1m 35.351s and Scott Speed on 1m 35.532s, were sandbagging in 19th and 20th positions after a lot of political complaint about their V10 engine on Friday, while Takuma Sato and Yuji Ide, as expected, brought up the rear for Super Aguri. Ides car ground to halt exiting the pits after he had got down to 1m 41.889s, but Sato looked better than anticipated with 1m 36.994s.
The gloves come off fully this afternoon, when the first knockout qualifying session will inject extra interest as the 22 drivers fight for grid position. Just to remind you, the slowest six cars will be ejected after the first 15 minutes, and will fill the last six places on the grid in order of their best laps. After the next 15 minutes the slowest six cars will also be ejected and will fill from 11th place downwards. The remaining 10 will then start all over again, fighting for the first five rows with their intended levels of race fuel in the final 20 minutes.