Schumacher surges to pole position in Malaysia

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Michael Schumacher won pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang for the fourth consecutive race, turning in the top time in qualifying.

It was the 44th pole in the career of the four-time world Formula One champion. He covered the 3.45-mile circuit in 1 minute, 35.266seconds in his Ferrari.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who had the fastest time in the final free practice Saturday morning, took second place on the grid with 1:35.497 in a Williams-BMW.

Rubens Barrichello was third, clocking 1:35.891 in the other Ferrari and nipping Ralf Schumacher's Williams-BMW by 0.137 on the final lap.

The Brazilian won pole position for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago, but was knocked out of the race on the first corner by Ralf Schumacher in a massive pileup.

Michael Schumacher has won the last two Malaysian GPs and has not failed to win pole position at Sepang in any of the four editions of the race. Last season, he clocked 1:35.220, a shade faster than today.

Schumacher won in Melbourne two weeks ago and is already the man to beat as he quests for his fifth world championship, which would tie him with Argentine legend Juan Manuel Fangio.

"Everyone was feeling good after Australia, thinking it was going to be an easy season," Schumacher said. "Things are tight, and we will have an interesting race tomorrow."

"It depends on the weather," Schumacher said. "There is a possibility of showers as we had last year. Obviously, it's unpredictable."

A tropical downpour shortly after the start played havoc with the field last year, causing accidents and spinouts. The weather in Malaysia had been dry recently, but sudden storms have occurred with increasing frequency this week.

Schumacher said that the reason his pole-winning time was slower this year was that the track wasn't faster.

"The track was slower than previous years ? I could only explain it by the asphalt being less rough or something like that," Schumacher said.

Montoya knew that he had faster times in the various sectors but was unable to pull them together on one run.

"Yeah, it is frustrating," Montoya said. "The car was really good. It is a matter of putting it all together. My car was especially good in sector two."

Barrichello was one of the few drivers to go fastest on his final run.

"I'm happy with that. It took a while," he said. "It is good to be only a small gap from the front row."

Ralf Schumacher suffered some of the same problems as his teammate Montoya, unable to put together a winning lap. He described Sepang as a circuit where "you can very easily waste tenths here and there."

"Nevertheless, tomorrow we should be able to put Ferrari under pressure and gain access to the podium," Ralf said.

Kimi Raikkonen, who led Friday's practice in a McLaren-Mercedes, took fifth on the grid in 1:36.468, while his teammate David Coulthard pulled up sixth at 1:36.477.

Coulthard was disappointed after a frustrating two days. In free practice Friday, he spun out and suffered an engine fire, but still had the second-fastest time. But today, the McLaren's rear-end was sliding again.

"The car didn't feel good, and we haven't been able to really improve the balance a great deal," Coulthard said. "It's going to be a real challenge tomorrow. I hope the engineers can come up with a miracle".

At least the McLarens are new models. Ferrari is still using a modified version of last year's season-winning cars, preferring to do more testing on the 2002 models. The Ferraris could be used in the Brazilian Grand Prix in two weeks.