Raikkonen ignites McLaren lift-off

One journalist sat nervously watching events unfolding on the track at Hungaroring yesterday, as Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest practice time in a McLaren that is a dramatic improvement on the silver machine that limped feebly around tracks earlier this season. This individual, whose blushes will be spared, has told the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, that he will streak in the paddock if his team win a race in 2004. His only consolation come tomorrow afternoon may be that Budapest is a warm place.

One journalist sat nervously watching events unfolding on the track at Hungaroring yesterday, as Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest practice time in a McLaren that is a dramatic improvement on the silver machine that limped feebly around tracks earlier this season. This individual, whose blushes will be spared, has told the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, that he will streak in the paddock if his team win a race in 2004. His only consolation come tomorrow afternoon may be that Budapest is a warm place.

Two months ago, such a performance from McLaren would have provoked suggestions of showboating on a low fuel load in an attempt to preserve dignity and keep sponsors happy, but this latest car has helped the team regain some of their championship-winning glory. David Coulthard's presence in fourth place further endorsed this upward trend, but the fact that Juan Pablo Montoya also lapped close to Michael Schumacher, who was second fastest, is a much-needed indication that Ferrari might get some genuine competition this weekend.

Schumacher and Ferrari are in much better shape here than they were last year, when the champion finished a lapped eighth, and he said he had had a pretty straightforward first day on a track that historically is always very dirty. Montoya, however, was not over-enamoured of his BMW Williams's behaviour, feeling there is a lot more to come, and Raikkonen was cautiously optimistic.

After a three-week break that stopped anyone capitalising on some fabulous racing in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim - a welcome change from the usual politicking - it was good to see such promise. But inevitably the "Jenson Button leaves BAR for Williams" story remained the off-track focus, and provoked some interesting reactions from the BAR boss David Richards' fellow team principals, whom he has asked for support.

"It's none of our business, really," said Eddie Jordan, who knows all about such matters after Benetton snatched Michael Schumacher from him after only one race back in 1991 when the German made his Formula One debut. The Contract Recognition Board (CRB) was actually set up as a corollary to govern such things. "By giving one member support over another it implies that you know the facts, and on this issue the facts have yet to emerge properly. I very much doubt that Jenson has lost his marbles, but the CRB is there and I think it is matter for them. It's not our place to make any judgement."

The Minardi owner, Paul Stoddart, agreed. "We pay money each year to keep the Contract Recognition Board going, and this is clearly a matter for them. If the contract is clear-cut, there will be a winner."

Jaguar's Tony Purnell, one of the more grounded people in Formula One, took a dim view of recent events. "I think it's a little bit cheesy, the whole thing, a bit of bad news for F1. It's a very unfortunate way to change teams. We are sad to see Mark Webber go [also to BMW Williams], but he has handled it beautifully, so you can do it ethically if you like. I don't think the messages in the Jenson Button affair are quite what F1 wants."

Ferrari's Ross Brawn added further perspective: "There are always two sides to every story, and we are hearing only the facts from one side at present."

Button himself had a relatively quiet day, after reacquainting himself with some disappointed and demotivated team-mates yesterday afternoon, the first time they had all come face-to-face after the news broke of his intention to defect. He set the eighth best time, eight-tenths of a second behind Raikkonen and six-tenths adrift of Schumacher, but said he was quite happy.

"I'm really pleased to be back on track after the three-week break," he said with irony, and after stonewalling his way through media interrogation the previous day. "I'm focusing purely on the Hungarian Grand Prix, and the car is looking strong." Well, it was an improvement on, "No comment".

Details from Hungaroring

Opening practice times: First session: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 21.552sec; 2 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:21.938; 3 *A Davidson (GB) BAR-Honda 1:21.951; 4 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:23.024; 5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:23.100; 6 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1:23.753; 7 O Panis (Fr) Toyota 1:23.827; 8 *R Briscoe (Aus) Toyota 1:24.108; 9 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:24.124; 10 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1:24.140; 11 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:24.191; 12 G Fisichella (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:24.196; 13 R Zonta (Br) Toyota 1:24.236; 14 *B Wirdheim (Swe) Jaguar 1:24.265; 15 G Pantano (It) Jordan-Ford 1:24.353; 16 A Pizzonia (Br) Williams-BMW 1:24.381; 17 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan-Ford 1:24.462; 18 *T Glock (Ger) Jordan-Ford 1:24.843; 19 T Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda 1:25.071; 20 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas 1:25.218; 21 C Klien (Aut) Jaguar 1:25.834; 22 *B Lienders (Bel) Minardi-Cosworth 1:26.074; 23 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi-Cosworth 1:28.296; 24 G Bruni (It) Minardi-Cosworth 1:28.893; 25 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar no time.

Second session: 1 Raikkonen 1min 20.884sec; 2 M Schumacher 1:21.009; 3 Montoya 1:21.165; 4 Coulthard 1:21.203; 5 Panis 1:21.352; 6 Sato 1:21.364; 7 Pizzonia 1:21.574; 8 Button 1:21.665; 9 Barrichello 1:21.712; 10 Alonso 1:21.946; 11 Webber 1:21.999; 12 *Davidson 1:22.356; 13 *Wirdheim 1:22.559; 14 Heidfeld 1:22.651; 15 *Glock 1:22.697; 16 Fisichella 1:22.743; 17 Trulli 1:22.788; 18 Zonta 1:22.808; 19 Pantano 1:22.937; 20 Klien 1:23.003; 21 *Briscoe 1:23.170; 22 Massa 1:23.188; 23 *Lienders 1:25.339; 24 Baumgartner 1:25.450; 25 Bruni 1:26.365.

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