Raikkonen offers rare challenge to Ferrari dominance

Where better for an underdog to shine than at Silverstone in front of an appreciative British crowd? Peter Sauber, one of the most straightforward people in the paddock, fights with a lot less than half the budget of the sport's top teams, but yesterday his team's efforts fell a mere five-thousandths of a second short of the fastest time as Kimi Raikkonen's revised McLaren led the way.

Where better for an underdog to shine than at Silverstone in front of an appreciative British crowd? Peter Sauber, one of the most straightforward people in the paddock, fights with a lot less than half the budget of the sport's top teams, but yesterday his team's efforts fell a mere five-thousandths of a second short of the fastest time as Kimi Raikkonen's revised McLaren led the way.

Neither team was showboating with low fuel loads - their lap times were the result of genuine performance improvements, though that does not necessarily mean that either team will be in the same position after qualifying tomorrow. Ferrari are still the strongest, but there are signs that they might have some opposition on one of the most demanding tracks on the calendar.

"I had a positive test here at Silverstone with the MP4-19B a few weeks ago," said Raikkonen after setting the fastest time of 1min 19.001sec halfway through the hour-long session and then improving it to 1:18.655. "We were quickest today, but there is nothing to celebrate yet - Saturday and Sunday are the important ones."

Likewise, Sauber's celebrations were muted after Giancarlo Fisichella banged in a 1:18.660 lap close to the end, but for different reasons. The underrated Italian broke his engine in the morning, and under the regulations that means he will lose 10 grid places after qualifying this afternoon. "I am very pleased, as we have taken a big step forward," Fisichella said.

"The team has done a fantastic job, and if you look what we have achieved with the car since Melbourne it is excellent. This step here in Silverstone is probably the biggest of them all. The car is very well balanced and stable. I am really, really optimistic, even though my engine problem this morning means that I will get the 10 grid-place penalty [having changed the engine]. The same thing happened at Nürburgring, and we still scored points there, so I'm really looking forward to the race."

Inevitably, the Ferraris were within striking distance, though probably running higher fuel loads, with Schumacher third on 1:19.162 and last year's winner, Rubens Barrichello, sixth on 1:19.473. Between them, David Coulthard and Jenson Button satisfied the home crowd with fourth and fifth-fastest times of 1:19.287 and 1:19.401 respectively.

"An encouraging start to my home grand prix," Coulthard said, "but it's early days. I feel that it should be possible to get on to the podium, so that has to be the goal." Podiums have come easily to Button, who is now looking for his first win. "We completed most of our work today," the Englishman said. "I think we know the direction we're heading in, we just have a lot more work to do to optimise the car in time for qualifying. The support from the crowd has been fantastic already and we have just to keep focused and do everything we can to build on today's performance and get stronger as we head into the race."

While Bernie Ecclestone and Sir Jackie Stewart continue their annual war of words about the merits and demerits of Silverstone as the venue for the British Grand Prix, there are better prospects of harmony on the technical front following a meeting of the technical working group, which the FIA, the international governing body of motor sport, has tasked with coming up with sensible proposals to limit lap times.

"We have come up with some ideas to limit downforce and are fairly confident we can reduce the aerodynamics and increase lap times, and that regulations arising from our proposals would be tunable each year," said Mike Gascoyne, the technical director of Toyota. "From that point of view on the chassis side the meeting was very productive. With tyres and engines it is more difficult to look at the situation and some of the proposals were not unanimous. Some of the engine manufacturers want longer-life engines and are looking at proposals made earlier for 2008 to see what could be pulled forward to 2005. Bridgestone and Michelin are working together to look at ways to reduce performance. So we are attacking on all fronts and there is good agreement. We are certainly moving in the right direction." The technical working group will report back to the FIA's world motor sport council on Friday.

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