Obstacles mount for Raikkonen as Trulli sets the pace

Motor Racing: Schumacher looks on approvingly as Renault driver signals intent with fastest time to further complicate Finn's title challenge
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Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen may be the centre of attention this weekend as their title fight reaches its conclusion, but on yesterday's qualifying performance both of them know there are likely to be interlopers intent on playing their own roles in the story.

Take Jarno Trulli, the man overshadowed by the explosion on to the scene of his young Spanish team-mate, Fernando Alonso, who scored Renault's first victory as a team for 20 years in Hungary. Trulli was only seventh that day, and though he took the defeat with grace and dignity, ever since he has been hell bent on scoring his own first win.

Yesterday he set the fastest time in the morning and the afternoon. This was of no real concern to Schumacher. He can, after all, afford to finish as low as eighth if his arch-rival Raikkonen wins. And if the Finn does not, it will not even matter if the Ferrari driver fails to finish. That is unlikely, however. His Ferrari, amazingly, has not let the champion down for the past 37 races.

Trulli's emergence could be bad news for Raikkonen, though. The Finn needs to win at all costs if he is to stay in the title fight. But there was some good news for him yesterday after he finished only fifth, a tenth of a second slower than Schumacher and three-tenths slower than Trulli. His team-mate, David Coulthard, who has failed to shine for most of the season and has thus failed to take many points from McLaren's rivals, showed signs of a return to form on this most challenging of all circuits. The Scot was quick in the morning, and repeated that form in the afternoon with the third fastest time.

At this level, talk of who deserves or does not deserve a title barely comes into it, but Raikkonen has an interesting slant on the subject. "If I win it, then I guess I deserve it," he said. "And if Michael wins it, then he deserves it. But I don't really care how many wins I've had or how many pole positions and fastest laps. If I win it, I win it. That's all."

Raikkonen admits he has about as much interest in the history of the sport as he does in public speaking, but added: "There have only been two Finnish champions, but I guess it would be nice to join them. And if it isn't this year, maybe it will be the next one."

The form in qualifying points to a tough race. The first seven drivers were separated by only half a second over a 5.8 kilometre lap, and the eighth-fastest, Juan Pablo Montoya, was held back by mechanical problems that interrupted his running in the morning. His team-mate, Ralf Schumacher, was second fastest, so the fight for the constructors' championship, between their BMW Williamses and the Ferraris, promises to be a tough one.

While Michael Schumacher was busy telling the world that his Ferrari felt great and had the good handling balance that is the secret of speed here at Suzuka, Montoya was saying: "I had a problem with the gearbox after nine laps this morning, and that cost me a lot of time as the unit had to be changed. The set-up wasn't ideal this afternoon so I had to push very hard and still have a lot of work to do tomorrow morning. But Ralf's time shows that we have the potential to do well here."

If you could choose a venue for a title shoot-out, Suzuka would always be high on your list, although it is a long way to come for the sort of antics that the late Ayrton Senna pulled on Alain Prost when he drove him out of the race and the championship on the first lap in 1990.

To a man, the drivers love it. The 130R corner, flat out in top gear through almost 90 degrees, is one of the greatest tests of man and machine, and changes intended to make it easier have only made it more of a challenge. "It's still flat," Ralf Schumacher said, "but there is a fairly big bump right on the apex which makes the corner very difficult." Just as it should be, when a championship crown is at stake.

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