Barrichello sets pace but pack close in on Ferraris

The red cars were in front again, but the pack were on their heels this time and the relief running through Formula One was palpable.</p>Rubens Barrichello marked the announcement of his extended contract at Ferrari by registering the fastest lap in practice for tomorrow's Austrian Grand Prix here, 300ths of a second ahead of his team-mate, Michael Schumacher.</p>Juan Pablo Montoya, closest challenger to Schumacher in the championship, was a further 300ths of a second down on the German in his Williams BMW, while McLaren Mercedes' Kimi Raikkonen was a mere 400ths of a second behind the Colombian, in fourth place. The sense of equality was reinforced by the appearance of Allan McNish's Toyota in fifth place, followed by an Arrows, a Jaguar and a BAR Honda.</p>McNish enjoyed the real luxury of the familiar environment, explaining: "We've tested here so I know the circuit.'' That knowledge will come under closer scrutiny today and he may not find himself so high up the grid. But Williams and McLaren should muster more competitive performances than they managed in Barcelona a fortnight ago.</p>Williams, in particular, feel they might exert some pressure on Ferrari, even if they appear resigned to the fact that Schumacher cannot be denied a record equalling fifth world championship The German's younger brother, Ralf, who was 12th in his Williams yesterday, indicated he was already looking ahead to a more concerted effort next season.</p>Ralf Schumacher said: "It is depressing when, as a driver, you know it is going to be difficult to compete. The championship is not over until it is mathematically decided, but Ferrari have a clear advantage. I don't know how long it will take to catch them. Hopefully only one or two weeks, but I don't think so.</p>"We thought after the Malaysian Grand Prix that it looked positive for us, but we were wrong. That's why it's so disappointing. It just gives us more time to think about next year, when maybe we can catch and overtake Ferrari.''</p>Michael Schumacher has a 21-point lead after only five races but, unlike Barrichello, he has had no breakdowns. Ralf is not alone in clinging to the hope that his brother's luck will run out on the only circuit where he has yet to win. Ralf said: "Michael hasn't had a technical failure this year and I hope he does here to give us a chance. Otherwise, it's going to be difficult to beat Ferrari.''</p>Barrichello has the one car that is a match for Michael's, providing it lasts the course. The Brazilian has finished only one race in this championship.</p>The other issue is whether he will be permitted to beat his team-mate. Barrichello, who had to yield second place to Schumacher here last year, ducked the question, saying: "I don't worry about the future. I just do my job and try to win.''</p>Montoya was suitably encouraged by his lap time. Having lost sight of Schumacher's Ferrari in Spain, he was gratified to get such a good view of it here. "We did quite a good job and the car definitely improved,'' Montoya said. "I think it is going to be a tough weekend but we hope to be closer to Ferrari here.''</p>Raikkonen, too, was buoyant. The Finn has out-qualified his experienced team-mate, David Coulthard, three times from five races this season and he was distinctly the quicker yesterday. "I'm feeling quite positive,'' Raikkonen said. "We got through a lot of work and have made some small improvements. How much we will benefit we can see only tomorrow.''</p>Coulthard, back in ninth place, sees little prospect of a significant breakthrough. The Scotsman said: "We can't really expect to compete for a win yet. The best I can hope for is the podium.''</p>Coulthard has become embroiled in a running battle with Renault's Jenson Button, although the Englishman was a subdued 14th yesterday. Button admitted: "I had a difficult time, struggling with the balance, which is something we need to work on. I have to wait for the next practice sessions to try out what we hope will be the answers to our difficulties.''</p>Team principals again met yesterday to discuss, among other matters, the thorny subject of cost-cutting. Some have demanded drastic action to ensure other teams do not go out of business, as Prost did.</p>However, Niki Lauda, head of Jaguar, argued that more prudent management of budgets could save millions. The Austrian is trimming "unnecessary'' expenditure and channelling the additional funds into the development of the car. Eddie Irvine was 11th in his Jaguar yesterday.</p>AUSTRIAN GRAND PRIX (Zeltweg, tomorrow) Yesterday's free practice times: 1</i> R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1min 10.549sec; 2</i> M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:10.579; 3</i> J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1:10.613; 4</i> K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:10.657; 5</i> A McNish (GB) Toyota 1:11.140; 6</i> E Bernoldi (Br) Arrows-Cosworth 1:11.244; 7</i> P de la Rosa (Sp) Jaguar 1:11.336; 8</i> O Panis (Fr) BAR-Honda 1:11.382; 9</i> D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes1:11.416; 10</i> T Sato (Japan) Jordan-Honda 1:11.537; 11</i> E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:11.608; 12</i> R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1:11.652; 13</i> H-H Frentzen (Ger) Arrows-Cosworth 1:11.743; 14</i> J Button (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:11.770; 15</i> F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas 1:12.013; 16</i> N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 1:12.023; 17</i> J Trulli (It) Benetton-Renault 1:12.155; 18</i> G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Honda 1:12.193; 19</i> M Salo (Fin) Toyota 1:12.375; 20</i> A Yoong (Malay) Minardi-Asiatech 1:12.564; 21</i> J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda 1:12.574; 22</i> M Webber (Aus) Minardi-Asiatech 1:13.219. </p>
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