Sauber and Stoddart lead the exit line

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The Independent Online

After yesterday's qualifying session the blue-and- yellow cars occupied the front row of the grid, bolstering Renault's hopes as they held a two-point lead over McLaren having regained their season-long initiative at Suzuka. Fer-nando Alonso, the champion, described his lap as "almost perfect" as he wrapped up pole position, with team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella alongside him.

Kimi Raikkonen's lap was less than smooth for McLaren, but the Suzuka winner was a close third, with his team partner, Juan Pablo Montoya, in fifth place a row further back. Between them was Jenson Button, behind them Michael Schumacher, the other hero of Suzuka.

In practice the McLarens looked as powerful as ever, but lacked an edge in one-lap qualifying. Renault have looked quick all weekend, Alonso in particular revelling in excellent traction. Button, in a car that has recently disappointed in races after qualifying strongly, said his car felt better than in ages. And Schumacher was cautiously optimistic as Ferrari and Bridgestone appeared to have rallied a little.

All the sweetness was balanced by sourness, of course. The Chinese Grand Prix represented the end of an era, and there have been more fond farewells than Frank Sinatra ever made. The partings have occasioned much sorrow as areas of the sport ride their emotional rollercoasters. This weekend has seen the demise of the Sauber, Minardi, Jordan and BAR marques. Next season they will metamorphose respectively into BMW, Squadra Toro Rosso (Red Bull Junior), Midland and Honda. Private team owners Peter Sauber (the most honest man in recent F1 history) and Paul Stoddart (the bravest and most outspoken) head for quieter lives, together with that most colourful individual Pierre Dupasquier, who led Mich-elin to so many successes. True motor-racing fans will mourn the departure of such people.

Whoever leaves here triumphant at the end of a brilliant season, Formula One will still end the year as the loser in some ways.

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