Schumacher sets blistering pace at Monza


Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 23

If Friday's practice was any indication, Michael Schumacher is poised for a special weekend at the Italian Grand Prix.

The seven-time world champion, who will announce his Formula One future after today's race, set a blistering pace in practice.

It also didn't hurt that championship leader Fernando Alonso struggled.

"It's evident that if things stay as are it would be great for us, but it's only Friday," Schumacher said.

The Ferrari driver trails Alonso by 12 points with four races remaining this season.

Schumacher's future could be decided after today's race, when Ferrari is expected to select its drivers for next year. The 37-year-old German's contract expires at the end of this season, and there is widespread speculation that he will retire.

Schumacher and Ferrari teammate Massa -- winner of the Turkish GP two weeks ago -- clocked the second and third-fastest times in afternoon practice.

BMW-Sauber test driver Sebastian Vettel led both the morning and afternoon sessions, although he won't be taking part in today's race. Test drivers are usually fastest because the top drivers often experiment with different settings.

In the second session, Vettel timed 1 minute, 22.631 seconds. Schumacher was second in 1:23.138 and Massa third at 1:23.182.

Alonso, who often underperforms in practice, was eighth with 1:24.577. Alonso drove his Renault slightly off track on two occasions.

"The gap always seems bigger on Friday. We look to experiment with our tires and fuel load," Alonso said. "I had a bit too much understeer today and that meant I couldn't attack the corners as I wanted to ... I am confident the car will feel good tomorrow."

Ferrari also excelled in testing there last week.

"This Friday didn't just happen by chance," Schumacher said. "We prepared well for Monza and we knew since last week that we were ready to perform well here."

Schumacher said he was just as concerned about where Alonso finishes on today.

"The farther back he is, the better. But I don't think there will be much difference between us at the end of the race," Schumacher said.

While Schumacher won't be able to catch Alonso in the drivers' standings this weekend, his Ferrari team is showing signs it could overtake the Spaniard's Renault outfit in the constructors' championship. Renault has a two-point lead over Ferrari.

While Alonso and Schumacher stayed in their garages, Vettel led the morning session with a time of 1:23.263. Vettel's Polish teammate, Robert Kubica, was second at 1:23.745 and Williams test driver Alexander Wurz was third in 1:23.868.

Vettel also led a practice session at the Turkish GP two weeks ago, when the German became the youngest official F1 driver at age 19.

McLaren-Mercedes' Kimi Raikkonen, still seeking his first win this season, posted the fourth fastest time of 1:24.037 in the morning, then dropped to sixth in the afternoon. Raikkonen is expected to be named today as Schumacher's replacement at Ferrari next season.

Honda test driver Anthony Davidson had both of his sessions cut short early by mechanical problems, with his engine ending up in smoke and then flames.

Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button consequently skipped both sessions.