Motor Racing: Title rivals fully armed for their final battles

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The Independent Online

In the end, almost inevitably on a dull and dreary afternoon when there was no point in them vaingloriously overstretching their equipment, Felipe Massa, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso were ultimately overshadowed by the Friday testers - Alex Wurz, Sebastien Vettel and Anthony Davidson. But the fact that the two Ferrari drivers were separated from Renault's team leader by less than two-tenths of a second bodes well for tomorrow's Chinese Grand Prix and the fight for the title between Schumacher and Alonso.

Both camps are throwing everything they have into the battle, reaching what the McLaren principal Ron Dennis once described as "ramming speed".

Ferrari have come to Shanghai with revised aerodynamics and rear suspension. Renault have a stronger, more reliable engine and their own special aerodynamic tweaks.

Their respective tyre suppliers - Bridgestone and Michelin - have yet more different tyres for them to try. Last year the French company wiped the floor with the Japanese on this challenging course, but only the unworldly would expect a repeat of that this season. The honours between the two have largely been matched, with Bridgestone perhaps having a slight advantage in recent races.

Thus, when Massa lapped in 1m 36.599sec, Schumacher in 1m 36.641, and Alonso in 1m 36.739, there were collective sighs of relief. Nobody wants to see one team or the other dominate here. A close-fought race will tee things up very nicely for the Japanese Grand Prix which follows next weekend, and Brazil a fortnight later.

At stake for Alonso is the world crown he took from Schumacher last year. At stake for Schumacher, as he prepares to ride into the sunset for 2007, lies a final chance not just to win a record eighth title but also, if he wins two of the three races, to match the combined scores of his old rivals Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, who between them won 92 races (51 and 41 respectively).

"Compared to last year, we are much more competitive," Schumacher said, "and we hope to be able to pay back the fans with a better result. The fight with our closest rivals seems to be very tight."

Alonso, sporting fresh warpaint in the form of new facial hair, said: "My car felt comfortable to drive straight away, so I am happy at the moment. We will wait for [today] to get a final judgement for the tyre performance, but so far the Michelins seem to be working well."

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