Raikkonen's power posts a warning to Ferrari

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The Independent Online

The one thing that suggests that Kimi Raikkonen's fastest time in practice in Malaysia yesterday was genuine - rather than the result of running a lower fuel load than rival teams as cynics suggested - was the expression on the face of the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, as he explained afterwards how his team had apparently plucked a nice plump rabbit from the hat.

The one thing that suggests that Kimi Raikkonen's fastest time in practice in Malaysia yesterday was genuine - rather than the result of running a lower fuel load than rival teams as cynics suggested - was the expression on the face of the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, as he explained afterwards how his team had apparently plucked a nice plump rabbit from the hat.

A fortnight ago, in Melbourne, Dennis was more than just embarrassed by the pedestrian performance of his silver cars. McLaren had gone to Australia firmly believing that they would be competitive, and had been floored not just by Ferrari's pace but by Renault's, Williams' and BAR's, too.

Yesterday morning Dennis called his team together for a morale-boosting talk, but it was the work behind the scenes since Melbourne that had laid the foundation for the upturn. There were some new parts on the cars and, yesterday at least, they behaved like one would expect McLarens to behave. Raikkonen bettered the best time, set in the morning by Michael Schumacher, and David Coulthard looked set for a quick time too until a problem with his accelerator pedal intervened.

Dennis, who in denying rumours that he is considering retirement said he has recently signed "the kind of contract every executive dreams of," is set to stay with the team he has resolutely pushed to the fore since 1980.

"The strength of any team is a sum of the total parts," he said. "We discussed the issues on the Monday afternoon after Melbourne and how we could use the time between Australia and Malaysia and how quickly we could recover the situation. So far, so good. It could be a lot better, but we will have to see how this weekend goes."

Whatever the true reason for McLaren's improvement, and regardless of whether it continues, it was a boost for Formula One at a potentially confusing time in the sport. Under the much-criticised new rules the cars no longer run in similar configuration on Friday afternoons, so it is impossible to glean with any meaningful degree of accuracy who really is quick and who might have been grandstanding.

There is talk of cosmetic changes to the format for Bahrain in a fortnight's time, which is like slapping a sticking plaster over a sliced throat, but when nobody appears able to agree on who actually was responsible for the new rules, there may be scant chance of the unanimous agreement necessary to effect change.

Yesterday began badly for Ferrari's rivals. In an apparent repeat of Australia's opening day, Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello set times beyond the reach of their rivals.

Indeed, the champion would not improve in the afternoon on the 1min 34.437sec lap that left him almost a second clear of his team-mate. He was only fourth in the second session, behind Raikkonen, his brother Ralf and the upstart Mark Webber in the Jaguar.

Ominously, however, the Ferrari boss, Jean Todt, explained this with the comment: "We were pursuing different programmes in the morning and the afternoon."

Malaysia lived up to its billing as the hottest race of the year, with track temperatures reaching 55C as the air temperature climbed well beyond 35 degrees.

"It was an interesting Friday session," Schumacher said, a trifle pensively. "I am quite happy with the balance of the car but there is room for improvement. It certainly seems to be a step forward from what we have seen in the past here. But the signs are that it will be a tight competition tomorrow."

His brother Ralf, who is believed to have signed his deal to join Toyota for 2005 following a 50 per cent pay cut proposed by Williams, said he was a lot happier with his car than he had been in the morning.

After a territorial dispute with his team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya in Australia, Ralf Schumacher suggested that in future he would take his partner off the track rather than give way.

Sir Frank Williams, who has seen all this sabre-rattling before with drivers of higher calibre, shrugged it off. "Drivers are free to race, to compete and to bump wheels if it is the only way to go by," he said. "Words come easily in the heat of the moment, so all I'll say is that all team managers keep an eye on their drivers."

Malaysian Grand Prix (Sepang) Practice times: First session: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 34.437sec; 2 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:35.380; * 3 A Davidson (GB) BAR 1:35.970; * 4 R Zonta (Br) Toyota 1:36.147; 5 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:36.229; 6 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren 1:36.314; 7 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 1:36.478; 8 J P Montoya (Col) Williams 1:36.606; 9 J Button (GB) BAR 1:37.018; 10 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:37.119; 11 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:37.438; 12 O Panis (Fr) Toyota 1:37.590; 13 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:37.816; 14 G Fisichella (It) Sauber 1:37.995; 15 T Sato (Jap) BAR 1:38.023; * 16 B Wirdheim (Swe) Jaguar 1:38.086; 17 C Klien (Aut) Jaguar 1:38.554; 18 C da Matta (Br) Toyota 1:38.734; * 19 T Glock (Ger) Jordan 1:38.788; 20 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan 1:38.831; 21 G Pantano (It) Jordan 1:39.860; 22 G Bruni (It) Minardi 1:41.149; 23 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi 1:42.556; 24 F Massa (Br) Sauber 1:42.718; * 25 B Leinders (Bel) Minardi 1:43.424

Second session: 1 Raikkonen 1:34.395; 2 R Schumacher 1:34.693; 3 Webber 1:35.054; 4 M Schumacher 1:35.094; 5 Montoya 1:35.100; 6 Trulli 1:35.115; 7 Massa 1:35.288; 8 Alonso 1:35.300; 9 Coulthard 1:35.301; 10 Barrichello 1:35.373; 11 Button 1:35.407; 12 Panis 1:35.524; * 13 Zonta 1:35.850; 14 Klien 1:35.996; 15 Sato 1:36.292; 16 Fisichella 1:36.353; * 17 Davidson 1:36.708; * 18 Wirdheim 1:36.883; 19 Da Matta 1:36.907; 20 Heidfeld 1:37.725; 21 Bruni 1:37.818; 22 Baumgartner 1:38.588; * 23 Glock 1:38.796; 24 Pantano 1:39.324; 25 Leinders 1:41.485. *denotes third drivers

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