Schumacher begins to make up for lost time

Michael Schumacher's speed in practice for today's Bahrain Grand Prix here yesterday put even Renault on red alert as the reigning champions rushed the debut of their new car. Ultimately Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli reproduced their speed from Australia and Malaysia, but it is clear that after stumbling with their updated 2004 car and less-than-great Bridgestone tyres in the first two races, and thus passing the baton to Renault, Toyota and Michelin, the Italian team are heading back to the front.

McLaren stand-in Pedro de la Rosa set the ball rolling with fastest time yesterday afternoon, before being supplanted by Mark Webber and then the Melbourne winner Giancarlo Fisichella, but then Michael Schumacher blew their times away with his own new benchmark. In the past, Bridgestone's tyres have been poor performers in one-lap qualifying conditions, but this time their latest product was as strong as Schumacher and his Ferrari F2005. The shockwaves from Ferrari became a ripple of fear in some quarters, particularly when fancied contenders Ralf Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen spoiled their laps and failed to oust the champion.

It was not until Trulli, one of the fastest qualifiers in the business, ventured out that Ferrari were put in their place. Where Schumacher had managed 1min 30.237sec, Trulli pushed his Toyota to 1:29.993. Then Alonso, the winner in Malaysia and therefore by privilege the last man to run in Saturday qualifying, showed his hand and the continuing strength of Renault. He was as much as half a second faster than Trulli until he reached the final corner, where he lost time after sliding wide, but his effort was still good enough to maintain 2005's status quo as he stopped the clocks in 1:29.848. Fears of a new red tide abated slightly, and with them hopes for a decently competitive world championship flourished anew.

Behind these three, BMW-Williams revelled in having a pair of hard-trying drivers. Both Nick Heidfeld and Webber did good work. Webber was fastest in morning practice and in the afternoon his 1m:30.592 lap was fastest for a while. Later, Heidfeld's 1:30.390 briefly put him second. Both men slipped back as the session evolved, to sixth and fourth respectively, but they will be a threat today.

The harmony in one Anglo-German team was in stark contrast to the growing frustration chez McLaren-Mercedes, and therein lies a tangled story that was one of the talking points of the weekend. It began when Juan Pablo Montoya suffered a shoulder injury on Easter Saturday. This may have been caused during a tennis match, but you would have been hard pressed to find anyone outside the McLaren team who didn't believe that the Colombian had, instead, crashed his motocross bike trying a jump at 50 mph. As one cynic remarked: "The only way he could have sustained that sort of injury playing tennis would be if he had fallen off that fancy hotel in Dubai where Roger Federer and Andre Agassi had their recent knock-up."

Then there was the suggestion that, besides replacing Montoya, McLaren thought at one stage, that same day, that Raikkonen would be indisposed after a fall during a party. That one proved wide of the mark and the Finn was all present and correct, but after his much publicised binge in a London nightclub before the season started it was difficult to dismiss that story with Absolut certainty.

But there is a problem at McLaren. The disruption caused by Montoya's absence has come at the worst time. As many people who disbelieve the tennis story do believe that McLaren have a car capable of beating Renault, but its potential has yet to be unlocked and a mistake from Raikkonen in the final corner merely served to underline the sense of irritation within the team. At a time when Ferrari are on their back foot, the silver arrows should be hitting the bulls-eye rather than falling short of the target.

Regardless of qualifying, Renault and Toyota are in great shape, Ferrari are a big threat again and Williams and McLaren are ready to make a fight of it. But further back, an unhappy Jenson Button has a mountain to climb.

It will be another hot race and much will depend on how Michelin and Bridgestone perform. Ferrari have a further concern after a transmission failure kept Rubens Barrichello from doing more than three laps between Friday morning practice and Saturday qualifying.

Michael Schumacher has not retired for genuine mechanical reasons since Hockenheim 2001 - that's 58 races - but in a topsy turvy season the odds on that record continuing may just have shortened just when he most needs that incredible reliability.

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