Schumacher takes pole in Malaysian GP

Already-crowned Formula One champ Michael Schumacher won the pole position today ahead of rival Mika Hakkinen for the season's final race. But the real tension came in a simmering off-track feud between two of the sport's most powerful figures.

Already-crowned Formula One champ Michael Schumacher won the pole position today ahead of rival Mika Hakkinen for the season's final race. But the real tension came in a simmering off-track feud between two of the sport's most powerful figures.

Ferrari's German ace, hoping to win for the Italian team Sunday its first double-title in the driver and constructor categories since 1979, blazed in with a qualifying performance nearly a half-second better than archrival Mika Hakkinen, a two-time champion driving for McLaren-Mercedes.

But the qualifying was overshadowed by a harsh exchange of letters between Max Mosley, president of the sport's governing body, and McLaren team boss Ron Dennis.

They are in conflict over recent comments Dennis made that appeared critical of the way the International Automobile Federation, or FIA, was handling the series.

"You do a lot of damage when, as a team principal, you constantly suggest that the F1 World Championship is not fairly run," Mosley said in his four-page letter, released to the media Saturday.

At the Japanese Grand Prix two weeks ago, Dennis appeared to object to the appointment of an Italian, Robert Causo, as a permanent steward in Formula One. Mosley said the comments implied that Causo would not be impartial in matters pitting Italy-based Ferrari against McLaren, a British team.

Dennis also criticized the way another FIA official, technical delegate Charlie Whiting, handled a new interpretation of a rule defining unsportsmanlike behavior as it concerns a teammate blocking out an opponent to preserve the lead of his partner.

Mosley's sharply worded letter prompted a retreat by Dennis, whose letter said he had no intention of questioning the integrity of FIA or Causo.

"I sincerely believe that a careful analysis of my public comments over the course of the weekend will show that I was in fact fair and circumspect," Dennis wrote, saying he wanted to meet Mosley to put the comments "into their true context."

Back on the track, Schumacher took his ninth pole position of the season. He has won the last three races starting from the pole and two weeks ago clinched the season title by winning the Japanese Grand Prix, going an insurmountable 12 points in front of Hakkinen.

Schumacher now has 32 career pole positions, tying him with Nigel Mansell for fourth on the all-time list.

Schumacher's Ferrari timed 1 minute, 37.397 seconds around the 5.543-kilometer (3.44-mile) Sepang circuit, averaging 204.881 kilometers per hour (127.334 mph). Hakkinen came it at 1:37.860 and McLaren teammate David Coulthard was third at 1:37.889. Rubens Barrichello, completing his first season with Ferrari, was fourth at 1:37.896.

"Being four-and-a-half tenths quicker than the others means I am relaxed about tomorrow," Schumacher said.

"There's no pressure," Schumacher said. "We all know what the situation is. We all race because we just love it. You can drive freely and as good as you can."

Ferrari is on the verge of a double title as it leads Hakkinen's McLaren team by 13 points. If the results of qualifying are duplicated in the 56-lap race, Ferrari would gain the title with points awarded on a 10-6-4-3-2-1 basis.

Ferrari has scored at least four points in every race this season.

Alexander Wurz of Benetton-Playlife, newly-signed as McLaren test driver for next year, was fifth at 1:38.644.

"To qualify right behind the Ferraris and the McLarens is like pole position for me," Wurz said.

Sunday's race is the second Grand Prix in Malaysia. The sport has a big fan in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has ruled this Southeast Asian country for 19 years.

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