It is a measure of the Malaysian Grand Prix organisers' faith in the high safety standards of the modern Formula One car that they felt comfortable using images of Michael Schumacher and his rivals engulfed in flames in their pre-event advertising, which made much of the event's status as "the hottest Grand Prix of the year".
Fire is certainly no longer the demon that it once was for Grand Prix racers. But the gamble nearly blew up in the organisers' faces when, only minutes into yesterday's first session, an electrical short-circuit caused a spectacular ignition of the bodywork of David Coulthard's McLaren Mercedes in a real-life parody of the advertising campaign.
The conflagration was quickly dealt with by marshals, but though he was unable to restart Coulthard manfully set about pushing his 605kg machine almost a kilometre back to the pits. Any track time lost is a setback, such is the pace of competition. Fearful that his car might need an engine change, the Scot wanted to give his mechanics the chance to carry out repairs as quickly as possible, rather than wait for the recovery truck to retrieve the car at the end of the session.
While Coulthard was waiting for his car to be fixed, his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen confirmed his growing status by setting the fastest time of the day. Coulthard later recovered to demote Michael Schumacher to third place, making it a good day for McLaren.
"As a day of preparation, today wasn't ideal," Coulthard said. "I wasn't able to do much running in the first session, so in the circumstances setting second fastest time was encouraging."
With only three Bridgestone-tyred runners in the top 10 – the two Ferraris and Nick Heidfeld's Sauber Petronas – the initial indications are that the temperatures here are much more to Michelin's liking. At 44 degrees, the track temperature was twice what it was in Australia, where Schumacher and Ferrari ran away and hid. Once again the champion team left its new car at home and relied on the updated version of last year's that took the German to his 54th victory in Australia a fortnight ago, but Schumacher looked unruffled as he surveyed the timing screen and insisted that he was not worried by the speed of the McLarens.
"We worked on defining our tyre choice today," the world champion said. "The tyres are good and I am happy with their performance. This meant we did not spend much time working on the actual set-up of the car. But I am pretty optimistic. I am not worried about the gap to the quickest runners today. We expected the others to be fast here, but we have to remember that Friday's times do not always give a clear indication of the real situation."
In particular, Toyota is not expected to repeat Mika Salo's performance in setting the fifth fastest time.
There was no fairy tale this time for the KL Minardi team, the heros of Melbourne, as Mark Webber spun in the morning and blew an engine in the afternoon. But at least they made the pit lane. Two more cars should have joined the field this weekend, but the reborn Prost team's machines were held up at Kuala Lumpur International Airport because they were not deemed to be part of the official F1 cargo.
Charles Nickerson of Phoenix Finance Ltd recently purchased Prost's assets from the judicial liquidator and had intended to join the Championship by presenting two cars for scrutineering at Sepang until an edict from the FIA, the sport's governing body, suggested that Prost's entry had not been transferred to Phoenix. Nickerson quickly issued a denial.
"Our French lawyers have stated that there is no question about it," he said. "The rights and benefits of Prost Grand Prix under the Concorde Agreement including its entry into the 2002 Championship were transferred to Phoenix Finance Limited in full accordance with French law."
Tom Walkinshaw, whose TWR company is providing technical support, said that further negotiations would take place next week.
The future of the new team was on the agenda of an in-camera meeting among the team owners yesterday afternoon, when proposals from the governing body to limit each car to a single engine per Grand Prix weekend were also discussed.
MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX (Sepang, tomorrow): Times after yesterday's two free practice sessions: 1 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren 1min 37.399sec; 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:38.038; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:38.490; 4 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:38.650; 5 M Salo (Fin) Toyota 1:39.066; 6 J P Montoya (Col) Williams 1:39.158; 7 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:39.279; 8 J Button (GB) Renault 1:39.714; 9 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:39.774; 10 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber 1:39.889; 11 A McNish (GB) Toyota 1:39.982; 12 P de la Rosa (Sp) Jaguar 1:40.147; 13 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Arrows 1:40.576; 14 G Fisichella (It) Jordan 1:40.815; 15 E Bernoldi (Bra) Arrows 1:41.095; 16 T Sato (Japan) Jordan 1:41.111; 17 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 1:41.461; 18 O Panis (Fr) BAR 1:41.473; 19 A Yoong (Malay) Minardi 1:41.805; 20 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:41.857; 21 F Massa (Bra) Sauber 1:41.917; 22 M Webber (Aus) Minardi 1:44.583.Reuse content