Sauber on pole to win also-ran race

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It will never have the impact of a battle for the world championship title, nor even the fight between David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello for the runner-up slot behind Michael Schumacher, long crowned world champion for the fourth time in his illustrious career.

But for Peter Sauber the fight for fourth place in the Constructors' Championship in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix here is the pinnacle of a career in which his small team have been the perennial underdogs.

What BAR and Jordan – the two Honda-powered teams fighting to displace Sauber-Petronas from the slot they have held for most of a remarkable season – spend on hospitality and promotion would probably keep Sauber's team running for half a season. Jaguar and Benetton-Renault, whose teams lag a long way behind the cigar-smoking Swiss entrepreneur's, spend twice what he has amassed in sponsorship from companies such as Credit Suisse bank, the Malaysian oil giant Petronas, and the energy drink Red Bull.

Sauber is not counting anything until that fourth place is in the bank, but the odds favour him. The team are five points ahead of BAR and Jordan, but Jordan are appealing against the decision to exclude Jarno Trulli from fourth place in America. If the Italian is reinstated, Jordan will gain two points and Sauber will lose one, bringing the gap down to two. But the appeal will not be heard until after Sunday's final race.

Sauber does not believe Jordan have a chance of winning their appeal. "But I still can't understand the decision to leave the appeal until after this race," he said yesterday. "When there was a problem with the Ferraris in Malaysia two years ago, it was solved before the Japan race."

Sauber are the closest racing gets to having a privateer team, without a technical alliance with an engine manufacturer, but their Ferrari engines are set to the same specifications that Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello used earlier in the season. Sauber denies that Ferrari will provide special engines this week to help his driver Nick Heidfeld and the soon-to-leave Kimi Raikkonen to consolidate the team's position.

The financial agreement with Ferrari is part of the reason behind the imminent announcement that the little-known 20-year-old Brazilian Felipe Massa will race alongside Heidfeld next year. Massa is the Italian Formula 3000 champion, and is favoured by the famous Scuderia. Having pulled off the surprise of the season by signing Raikkonen, Sauber believes he can do it again after Massa impressed recently in testing.

"This weekend we have only one focus," he said. "At the beginning of this year I never believed we could move from eighth to fourth. Now we have proved that we can sustain our performance over an entire season, but with increased success comes increased pressure. I won't believe we have fourth place until it is beyond doubt."

So long as Sauber finish ahead of the BARs and the Jordans on Sunday, Jordan's appeal will be academic. F1's underdog seems set to finish on the heels of Ferrari, McLaren-Mercedes and Williams-BMW. That would be as remarkable and laudable as anything the precocious Raikkonen has achieved this season.

* James Allan, ITV's pit lane reporter, has been named as the replacement for Murray Walker, who delivered his final commentary at the US Grand Prix.