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Motor Racing

Button confident as BAR make jump forward

Ferrari come to Imola this weekend desperately hoping for an upturn in fortune after a bruising start to their season, but on yesterday's form it was BAR-Honda who had the most to crow about.

Ferrari come to Imola this weekend desperately hoping for an upturn in fortune after a bruising start to their season, but on yesterday's form it was BAR-Honda who had the most to crow about.

Underlining the intensity of this hi-tech sport, the team did 6,000 kilometres of testing in the fortnight since Bahrain, where Jenson Button's championship aspirations were dealt yet another blow as a clutch problem denied him for the third time his chance of scoring points.

Despite the disappointments, however, the mood in the Anglo-Japanese team is higher than ever because of the clear performance jump they made in tests in Barcelona and at Paul Ricard. Button set the fastest time in Spain, despite running on part-worn tyres; team-mate Takuma Sato did the honours in France. Yesterday they were second and 10th respectively.

"We were pretty happy after those two tests," admitted team principal Nick Fry, "and after they indicated that we had gained eight-tenths of a second per lap we analysed everything because we couldn't believe it. What we will admit to is finding four-tenths."

Success this weekend is crucial to Button's campaign. Far from alienating the team he tried to leave last August when he attempted to return to Williams-BMW, his outburst after retirement from the Malaysian Grand Prix has strengthened both his position and credibility within the team. It has galvanised Honda into improving the reliability of their engine, and further motivated BAR to regain the impressive level it achieved while finishing second only to Ferrari in 2004.

It took Button only three laps yesterday afternoon to smash the fastest time the Bahrain sensation Pedro de la Rosa had recorded for McLaren-Mercedes in the morning's session, and though the Spaniard subsequently went faster with a lower fuel load right at the end of the second practice session, Button and BAR made their point.

"Today has shown that we have reason to be confident for the weekend ahead," Button said. "Obviously it's early in our preparation to be making any firm predictions for Sunday but this is where I would have expected to be in the timesheets after the progress we made in testing last week.

"We experienced the usual Friday conditions in the morning session with low grip causing a problem whilst the circuit was cleaning up. This afternoon we've been able to do more work with the tyres and set-up. We completed some reasonably good long runs but we still have some work to do to ensure we are able to get the most out of the new package."

The running order for first qualifying is determined by a reversal of the finishing order from the previous race, and the lap times from that session will be added to those from Sunday's morning's session to determine the starting grid. On a track where overtaking is traditionally very difficult, Button will be seeking to repeat his pole position from last year's race here to be sure of optimising his chances.

If you discounted de la Rosa's performance on the basis that teams' Friday testers do not have to operate under the same considerations as regular race drivers whose tyre allocation and engine life are limited, Kimi Raikkonen was really Button's closest challenger in his McLaren, seven-tenths of a second adrift.

Michael Schumacher was again behind the title leader, Fernando Alonso, and his Renault, down in sixth place a second away from Button.

"We are looking competitive compared to the others," the world champion said. "The car seems to be strong in most areas and today went well. I am happy with the handling and I had a well-balanced car right from the start which meant we could get a lot of work done. BAR's performance was interesting, but we need to know if they were running at race pace or if they were on a light fuel load. I think we can be confident for qualifying and the race."

Alonso kept a careful watching brief on his rivals' progress, barely running at all in the morning and only venturing out with 20 minutes to go in the afternoon. "Today was primarily a tyre test," he said after lapping eight-tenths slower than Button. "We got good results on clean runs and now have the data we need to make our choice.

"Imola is a very tough circuit for the suspension: we hit the kerbs hard, and the car needs to be able to cope with that. The drivers must be aggressive through the corners, which I like, and it is impossible to relax: if you get the line wrong over the kerbs, you will be in the gravel trap or the barrier. So far, the R25 has been competitive on all the types of circuit we have visited; I expect it will continue here."