Engine failure dogs McLaren to deepen Raikkonen's unrest

In a masterpiece of spin, McLaren quoted the Finn as saying: "I'm a bit disappointed with the engine failure which stopped my first practice session prematurely. However, we managed to get some running in the second practice."

Nevertheless, for the Finn it is an unwelcome hat-trick for the season: the third time he has suffered the penalty levied on drivers for the shortcomings of their engine supplier. The lack of reliability from Mercedes-Benz is one of the factors that is believed to lie behind Raikkonen's recent talks with Ferrari.

That deal is all but cemented, according to insiders, though Raikkonen himself fudged questions by saying: "They're not new rumours, they are already three years old. But of course, now, everyone knows my contract is only to next year with McLaren, so maybe it becomes more exciting to write about those rumours.

"The fact is that I have a contract next year," he added, "and I'm happy with the team and for sure the car will also be good next year and I don't see any reason to go anywhere else. OK, after next year, we will see again, but I'm happy to stay."

For the record, all of the rumours acknowledge that Raikkonen has a firm contract with McLaren for 2006 and refer to 2007 and beyond, something he neatly managed to sidestep.

The Suzuka circuit is narrow and demanding, and though the McLaren has thus far proved to be the fastest car, as usual, it will still be difficult for Raikkonen to work his way from 11th place (or worse, depending on how fast he can go in qualifying today) to help the team's quest for points.

An additional complication, this time for everybody, arose yesterday afternoon when rain interrupted the second practice session after the Brazilian Ricardo Zonta had taken his Toyota round in a time scarcely slower than the McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa had achieved in the morning.

Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello were also well up in their hitherto uncompetitive Ferraris, but mainly because the rain subsequently slowed everyone else down before they got their quick laps in.

"Driving at Suzuka is always fun," Schumacher said, "but I find it difficult to judge how we went today. We definitely did better in the second session, but the time difference is down to the fact that we were probably the only ones to run on new tyres before the rain came."

The new world champion, Fernando Alonso, was sixth in the morning and eighth in the afternoon, but was not too bothered. "We expected rain in the afternoon so ran a lot in the first session, which was quite difficult for the drivers" the Spaniard said. "We looked reasonably quick and there is a lot more potential in the car and myself to improve."

Jenson Button was happy with the third fastest morning time in his BAR-Honda. "I hope we can continue to get stronger during the rest of the weekend," Button said.

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