Renault outpaces Ferrair in qualifying

MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX: World champion Michael Schumacher, so dominant last year, was back in 12th, two places ahead of Ferrari mate Rubens Barrichello

AP , SEPANG, MALAYSIA

Sun, Mar 20, 2005 - Page 23

Renaults were first and third in qualifying yesterday for the Malaysian Grand Prix, with Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella trading places from their podium performances in Australia two weeks ago.

The starting grid can still change before today's Grand Prix, with a second qualifying session scheduled for Sunday morning. Times from both runs are combined to determine places on the grid.

"I enjoy the Sepang track very much -- it suits me," said Alonso, who won pole position here in 2003 and had the quickest lap yesterday in 1 minute, 32.582 seconds. He was 0.09 ahead of Toyota's Jarno Trulli and 0.183 ahead of Fisichella.

"It's nice to be here again -- it means Renault is going well. I'm third quickest and considering that I made a couple of mistakes, that's not bad," said Fisichella. "We're still competitive. We can still fight to get on the podium and to win here."

McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen was fourth, his 1:32.839 making him the only other driver to run under 1:33, while Ralf Schumacher was fifth in the other Toyota.

All cars were running light fuel loads and new tires Saturday, making the times extra slick.

Fuel levels will be higher today morning because no topping up is allowed between the second qualifying run and the GP.

"The times are closer than ever here in Sepang -- this makes the qualifying even more interesting for tomorrow," said Alonso.

The 23-year-old Spaniard's time for provisional pole eclipsed the 1:33.074 that Michael Schumacher set to take pole position here last year. Alonso slid off trying to corner too fast in qualifying here last year and said he'd learned from that, pushing his Renault enough "just to have a little gap" yesterday.

Trulli, who started on the front row of the grid in Australia but finished out of the points, dedicated his qualifying run yesterday to a friend who died in Italy on Friday in a helicopter crash.

He said his run proved that Toyota was as fast as the best, and he was confident that could be replicated over 57 laps in the GP.

"The car has been competitive, easy to drive. Hopefully it will be good, also in race pace," he said. "I'm a little more optimistic than I was in Australia because we have some new parts on the car," Trulli said.

Williams had sixth and eighth places via Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld, the BMW-powered cars split by McLaren's Juan Pablo Montoya in seventh.

Yesterday's qualifying session didn't contain the drama of the season-opening run on March 6, when Michael Schumacher was caught in a downpour in Melbourne just as he started his flying lap.

Many of the top drivers following him at Albert Park were hampered by the wet conditions -- that happened just after Fisichella had recorded the fastest run. And he wasn't headed for the rest of the weekend.

Contrasting conditions from Melbourne, the 5.543km Sepang circuit was searing yesterday, with the track temperature topping 50?C and the air temperature above 37? C.

Schumacher, coming out in the unfamiliar position near the backmarkers, was 0.227 seconds off the pace.

Ferrari is using modified versions of its 2004 racers, with its 2005 model cars expected to be unveiled next month in Bahrain.

"Naturally, I'm not happy with he way things went," said Michael Schumacher. "It's clear that on a quick lap, our performance is not at the same level as our rivals, but we know that over a distances things are different -- and that's what counts."

The reigning world champion, who didn't finish in Melbourne after colliding with Heidfeld, was aiming for his first points of the season.

"It's a very long and tough race and our aim is to finish in the points -- if not on the podium."

Teams must stick with the same tire set up for qualifying and the race, while all but five cars are using the same engines they used at the Australian GP under the one-engine, two-weekend rule introduced for 2005.

BAR-Honda's Jenson Button, using a new engine in Malaysia courtesy of a now-closed loophole in the engine regulations, was ninth Saturday and the Red Bulls of Christian Klien and David Coulthard were 10th and 11th.

BAR-Honda's backup driver Anthony Davidson, a late replacement for Japan's Takuma Sato -- who withdrew earlier yesterday because of a fever -- was clocked in 1:34.866 in his first qualifying run for more than two years. Davidson, who had two races for Minardi in 2002, was 15th.

He was just in front of 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve in a Sauber and the Jordans and Minardis.

constructors

The new-season blues continued for Formula One constructors' champion Ferrari on yesterday with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello finishing in the back half of the field.

World drivers' champion Schumacher, who couldn't complete the season-opener in Australia, was 12th in the qualifying run Saturday and Barrichello was 14th, well below the standard he set in his second place run in Melbourne on March 6.

Ferrari general director Jean Todt admitted that the second qualifying lap on Sunday, just before the race, is not going to dramatically alter the team's low starting positions.

Todt said Ferrari was well aware that its car, a modified version of the 2004 vehicle, is "not sufficiently competitive over a single timed lap."

Ferrari, which has won the last six constructors' titles, is facing a stiff challenge from Renault, whose Giancarlo Fisichella won in Melbourne two weeks ago.

Renault's Fernando Alonso aced the qualifying with a fastest lap of 1 minute, 32.582 seconds. Fisichella was third quickest.

Schumacher's 1:34.072 was nearly 1 1/2 seconds behind Alonso.

"It's clear that, on a quick lap, with new tires, our performance is not at the same level as our rivals," said Schumacher.

Ferrari has refused to join the nine other F1 teams which have agreed to restrict testing in 2005 to 30 days. The reduction in testing is aimed at cutting the costs in the sport.

Ferrari has a bigger budget and more testing facilities than any other team, and says it'll test whenever it wants until F1's governing authorities, FIA, makes rules limiting testing.

So much for solidarity among the so-called "Group of Nine."

Formula One's smallest team, Minardi, claimed to be speaking on behalf of eight of its rivals when it issued a statement here in Sepang condemning Ferrari for doing too much testing, contradicting moves within the sport to reduce testing as a cost-cutting measure.

Sauber, one of only two teams to share a tire manufacturer with Ferrari, rebuffed Minardi's stance.

"Team Sauber Petronas distances itself completely from the statement `nine teams record their disappointment regarding Ferrari testing activities,'" Sauber's own statement read. "It was released without the prior approval of the aforementioned teams."

Sauber was more concerned with its own progress with 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, faster only than the strugglers from Jordan and Minardi.