Alonso's pace piles pressure on Ferrari

Renault prove Melbourne was no fluke but Schumacher struggles again
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The Independent Online

You did not need outstanding perspicacity to anticipate that Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella would be at the sharp end of the grid when Formula One closed for business after the first qualifying session yesterday for today's Malaysian Grand Prix here.

You did not need outstanding perspicacity to anticipate that Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella would be at the sharp end of the grid when Formula One closed for business after the first qualifying session yesterday for today's Malaysian Grand Prix here.

Nor that Kimi Raikkonen would be within striking distance in a McLaren that was not, to use their team chief Ron Dennis's favourite word, "optimised" in Melbourne a fortnight ago. But, his own front-row performance Down Under notwithstanding, Jarno Trulli's presence in a fighting second place in his Toyota was a surprise.

Backing the long-haired Italian strongly, his team-mate Ralf Schumacher was fifth fastest, ahead of the BMW-Williamses of Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld, who sandwiched Juan Pablo Montoya. Jenson Button was ninth, thanking his luck that he did not, after all, need an engine change (which would have cost him 10 grid places) after a morning oil leak. With Christian Klien edging his Red Bull team-mate David Coulthard out of the top 10, there were the makings of another unusual grid, but one which is a rather more valid pointer to form than was the case in the rain-interrupted qualifying in Melbourne.

Some positions could have changed a little by race time depending on what fuelling strategy teams ran in the final qualifying session, but probably not materially.

Which leads on to another surprise: by Saturday night there were no Ferraris in the top 10, as Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barri-chello languished in 12th and 14th places respectively. Ferrari in trouble?

It has been a bit of a bruising weekend for the team. On Friday night Schumacher's peers in the Grand Prix Drivers' Association voted that he should apologise to his fellow countryman Heidfeld after their collision during the Australian race. Then last night Ferrari were lambasted by rivals for testing their new car in Mugello on the same weekend as a race meeting.

"Naturally, I am not happy with the way things went," Schumacher said after first qualifying. "It's clear that, on a quick lap, with new tyres, our performance is not at the same level as our rivals." He expects to be faster on scrubbed tyres in the race, but you detect an air of strife at Ferrari right now.

There was better news for one of Britain's most consistently underrated drivers, as Anthony Davidson was drafted in at late notice yesterday morning to replace Takuma Sato at BAR Honda after the Japanese racer developed a viral infection. "When I had the final confirmation that I would be driving this morning, I was packing my bags ready to go home," he said.

Davidson last raced in 2002 as stand-in at Minardi, doing enough to give his team-mate Mark Webber a wake-up call and to secure a role as BAR's test driver. In 11 practice laps he matched Sato's Friday best, but was perhaps (understandably) a little cautious on his single qualifying run.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere tougher than Malaysia, the season's hottest race, to make such a last-minute switch. And as Davidson continues to be touted as a possible replacement for the troubled Jacques Villeneuve at Sauber, Button gave graphic indication of what his new team-mate will face.

"Sepang is the only circuit where you feel you could be getting a suntan through your driving suit," Button said. "On the straights you usually get your composure back and get nice and relaxed for the next corner, whereas here you are just heavy breathing everywhere because of the hot air. You are conscious of trying to stay as relaxed as possible. I'll drink a litre and a half of liquid during the race here."

Back in 1959 the British driver Tony Brooks was the first man to use a drink during a hot grand prix, at Reims in France. "It was sweltering and I prepared some orange juice," he recalled. "I led the race and was ready for my first sip of cool, refreshing liquid, but when I took a mouthful it was boiling!"

Brooks went on to win that race for Ferrari, but while other technology has progressed, water bottles have changed little. "I lost mine once," Button said, "and got so dehydrated that I sweated and shivered for the last 20 laps. Your vision starts to go after that, with the dehydration. The trouble with a drink is keeping it cold. You get past the cool bit and it's like drinking tea after three laps. Not nice."

The cars suffer, too. "It's very tough on the rear tyres here," Button continued, "and if you blister them, that's it. That's where all the time is lost; you lose traction, stability at high speed, stability under braking."

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