Montoya holds his own as desert oasis promises surprises

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The Independent Online

Clouds of dust, some dramatic tyre failures, a circuit like ice off the racing line, and the two fastest men separated by one thousandth of a second. Oh, and Michael Schumacher only fourth-fastest. So far the inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix is pressing all the right buttons.

"It's really good, a fantastic track, and so far it's been a very good experience for me," said Juan Pablo Montoya after setting the second fastest time. No sooner had Rubens Barrichello lapped his Ferrari in 1min 31.450sec than the Colombian crossed the line in 1:31.451. Hopefully that is a good omen.

"The grip is not bad, in spite of all we have heard," Montoya said. "Normally we are not so good on a Friday when the track is 'green', but get quicker as the weekend goes on and more rubber goes down. So, yeah, I'm pretty happy with this for a start."

Amen to that. The first two races of the season have been bad news for Formula One's box office even if they have been great news for Ferrari and Bridgestone. But here, out in this oasis in the desert of Bahrain, on a £100m circuit that nobody had raced on before, things have been thrown back into the melting pot and so far the portents are promising.

Only the Ferrari management want to see their red cars disappear into the distance. Everyone else wants to see a motor race, and if they are lucky the Bahrainis will be able to stage one.

Everyone got used to the heat - up to 33C at one stage with a track temperature that peaked at 54C - having raced in Malaysia a fortnight ago, so the talking points have been the dust, the level of grip and three Michelin tyre failures that sent Fernando Alonso and Anthony Davidson limping back to the pits and David Coulthard spinning spectacularly so far into a gravel run-off that he nearly needed satellite navigation to find his way back to the pits.

Throw in an early bath for Kimi Raikkonen when his McLaren's Mercedes engine suffered a fire, and stand-out performances by the rookies Christian Klien (fifth) and Giorgio Pantano (13th), and it was a day with plenty of interest.

It was uncertain initially whether the punctures were a by-product of heat build-up or the myriad small stones that have been churned out of the track surface by the power of these cars or that have been thrown on to the track by errant drivers.

"I haven't yet seen a car with a brush in front of it," Schumacher joked, "but I'm not too worried about the dust and stones. If you go off the track, that's where the dust is big time, and it's inevitable that you'll get a bit of sand and stone like you do on other circuits when they have first-time usage. But it's important not to get confused. We are talking about two levels, going off the track, as I have just mentioned, and going off line. If you go off line it is slippery, and we will have to see how that develops over the weekend. But, really, there is nothing to do but keep your driving clean and see how it goes."

Michelin had another possible explanation. Pascal Vasselon, their programme manager, said: "We have found identical marks on all three affected tyres and they all suffered kerb impact damage prior to deflating."

A subsequent inspection of the track revealed that two drainage hatches had become detached from their concrete bases, creating sharp ridges that inflicted damage on the tyres. Track officials corrected the problem in time for today's running.

While Coulthard remained stranded, Davidson got straight back into the groove and banged in an impressive third-fastest time with a few minutes of the afternoon session left. The three BAR drivers - seventh-fastest Jenson Button, Takuma Sato and Davidson - usually pursue different programmes on a Friday, but the young racer from Hemel Hempstead continues to demonstrate form worthy of a full-time ride in 2005. At a time when Toyota is considering throwing upwards of £70m at Ralf Schumacher, somebody should put Davidson's name in front of their Japanese management.

For Jaguar's Klien, yesterday was an opportunity to bury the startline nightmare of Sepang and also to demonstrate his own talent as he set the fifth-best time. "Today was a really good day," he said with a calmness belying his 21 years. "The circuit is very new, and the last two races for sure were difficult for me because I had only ever seen them on the Playstation..."

Further back, Pantano did a great job for the Jordan team to leave better-funded teams such as Sauber-Petronas and Toyota in his dust cloud.

If the contest is still as close tomorrow, you can forget clichés about mirages in this desert.

Practice Times

First session: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 32.158sec, 2 T Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +0.493sec, 3 A Davidson (GB) BAR-Honda +0.800, 4 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW +0.869, 5 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda +1.740, 6 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +1.865, 7 R Zonta (Br) Toyota +2.131, 8 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas +2.330, 9 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +2.445, 10 T Sato (Jpn) BAR-Honda +2.452, 11 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW +2.461, 12 J Trulli (It) Renault +2.638, 13 F Alonso (Sp) Renault +2.652, 14 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan +2.714, 15 G Pantano (It) Jordan +2.809, 16 G Fisichella (It) Sauber-Petronas +3.230, 17 T Glock (Ger) Jordan +3.602, 18 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar +3.747, 19 O Panis (Fr) Toyota +3.823, 20 C da Matta (Br) Toyota +4.201, 21 C Klien (Aut) Jaguar +4.487, 22 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi +4.891, 23 G Bruni (It) Minardi +5.189, 24 B Wirdheim (Swe) Jaguar +5.285, 25 B Leinders (Bel) Minardi +5.634.

Second session: 1 Barrichello 1:31.450, 2 Montoya +0.001sec, 3 Davidson +0.038, 4 M Schumacher +0.282, 5 Klien (Aut) +0.339, 6 R Schumacher +0.392, 7 Button +0.429, 8 Webber (Aus) +0.591, 9 Alonso +0.784, 10 Zonta +0.885, 11 Coulthard +1.045, 12 Sato +1.230, 13 Pantano +1.258, 14 Da Matta +1.311, 15 Massa +1.581, 16 Panis +1.599, 17 Fisichella +1.611, 18 Trulli +1.987, 19 Glock +2.245, 20 Baumgartner +2.604, 21 Wirdheim (Swe) +2.867, 22 Bruni +3.341, 23 Leinders +4.798, 24 Heidfeld +9.123, 25 Raikkonen no time.