Schumacher sounds ominous early warning

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The Independent Online

You know when you have really been looking forward to something, and finally it arrives and the result is anything but what you expected? That is how most of the Formula One teams felt after practice here yesterday. Some of them, of course, had inflated their hopes knowing in their hearts that disappointment was the only outcome. But imagine how BMW-Williams and McLaren-Mercedes felt. Or, to lesser extents, Renault and BAR-Honda.

The reason, of course, was the two men driving red cars round the tricky - and initially quite dirty - track in Albert Park. The champion, Michael Schumacher, and his sidekick, Rubens Barrichello, had immediately been quick in the morning, but it was expected that the others would hit their stride in the afternoon. Well, they didn't. The Ferraris were a second quicker than anyone else, and not even an aerial moment when he so nearly lost control of his car could disguise the fact that Schumacher and Ferrari were back with a vengeance. It looked horribly like 2002 all over again.

More than ever, Fridays are confusing days again. Last year they had meaning because at some point everyone had to run with low fuel and thus a picture emerged of the true performance levels. The afternoon session determined the running order for Saturday's one-lap qualifying. Not any more. Now Friday is just a glorified test session. Did some people wind down their motors to make sure they lasted all weekend, under the new rule demanding that everyone must use only one engine per meeting? Were some teams running less fuel than others? Who knows?

Many consoled themselves with the thought that Ferrari were doing their qualifying preparation on Friday and saving their race preparation for Saturday morning, the opposite of what most others were doing. But that did not make sense. By the end of the afternoon, an awful truth was dawning on those who had expected to be competitive: Ferrari were looking ominously strong.

One senior Williams engineer stood disconsolately contemplating the new rules as the evening shadows lengthened. "The way they are this year is very confusing," he said. "There is never a time when you can definitely say all the cars are running in identical trim. Maybe some were running more fuel than others today, and perhaps with their engines detuned which could account for up to six-tenths of a second per lap. But I have to say that I see no reason to disbelieve that Ferrari really are as quick as they look.

"If we have a close race on Sunday and they are second and fifth, then we'll know. But if it's close and they win we won't know, because it's not in their interest to show their full hand in case the rules get changed to protect the championship from a repeat of 2002."

Behind the Ferraris, Renault were third and fifth courtesy of Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso, while Jenson Button indicated that BAR's winter promise was no flash in the pan with a solid fourth place which brought a smile to the team chief David Richards' face. He has, after all, £1,000 riding on his man to win at 10-1 on Sunday.

That looks a lost bet. Williams, the pre-event favourite, were only sixth (Ralf Schumacher) and seventh (Juan Pablo Montoya), and McLaren only eighth (David Coulthard) and 10th (Kimi Raikkonen). Between them came the big surprise, in the form of the local hero Mark Webber in the Jaguar. "Rather than us sandbagging all winter," the team boss, Tony Purnell, ventured, "I think a lot of others may have been showboating."

And so the first day of the 2004 season ended in a mixture of demoralisation and confusion that was not quite what was expected. There was also some argument as Eddie Jordan and Paul Stoddart accused better-heeled teams of reneging on promises to support Euro10m engine deals for their impecunious teams. While this was happening, Bernie Ecclestone renewed his call for 20 races, and only 20 days of testing. "That all that makes sense," Formula One's commercial rights-holder said. "Our business is racing, not testing, and 20 is a nice round number."

Ferrari are blocking moves to limit testing, and the Renault chief, Flavio Briatore, alluded to the Italian team when he said: "I was very happy testing only on Fridays last year, but some people in Formula One love spending money, and that's the way it is."

Now, though, there is as much chance of that happening as there was of anything living with Ferrari on this first pukka day of the Formula One year.

Australian Grand Prix practice

Times after yesterday's second session:

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari, 1min 24.718sec.

2 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari, 1:24.826.

3 J Trulli (It) Renault, 1:25.757.

4 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda, 1:25.786.

5 F Alonso (Sp) Renault, 1:25.853.

6 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW, 1:25.882.

7 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW, 1:26.206.

8 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:26.215.

9 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar, 1:26.312.

10 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:26.579.

11 G Fisichella (It) Sauber-Petronas, 1:26.601.

12 T Sato (Jap) BAR-Honda, 1:26.967.

13 F Massa (Bra) Sauber-Petronas, 1:26.969.

14 R Zonta* (Bra) Toyota, 1:27.165.

15 A Davidson* (GB) BAR-Honda, 1:27.516.

16 C Da Matta (Bra) Toyota, 1:27.710.

17 C Klien (Aut) Jaguar, 1:27.724.

18 O Panis (Fr) Toyota, 1:27.807.

19 N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan-Ford, 1:27.826.

20 B Wirdheim* (Swe) Jaguar, 1:28.781.

21 G Bruni (It) Minardi-Cosworth, 1:28.991.

22 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi-Cosworth, 1:29.708.

23 G Pantano (It) Jordan-Ford, 1:30.061.

24 T Glock* (Ger) Jordan-Ford, 1:30.291.

* denotes third driver