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Schumacher puts rivals on red alert

March 05, 2004 16:16 IST

Ferrari's Michael Schumacher put his Formula One rivals on red alert on Friday after pulverising the lap record in practice for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Despite flirting with disaster, bouncing over the rough runoff and almost hitting a wall, the German world champion sliced more than a second off the previous mark set by Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello.

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With new rules forcing drivers to stick with one engine all weekend or pay a heavy price, the top teams limited their time on the track. But the six times world champion's performance still stood out and he is once again the man to beat.

"I am happy with the performance of the car which has matched our expectations after winter testing," said Schumacher.

"But we should not read too much into the lap times as it is too early to say if this is a true picture of the order among the teams. In fact, I doubt that it is."

His time of one minute 24.718 seconds compared to Barrichello's pole of 1:25.843 for the 2002 season-opener that set Ferrari on the road to a record-breaking season of domination with 15 wins in 17 races.

Barrichello was second fastest, 0.108 slower than Schumacher. Renault's Italian Jarno Trulli ended both sessions as the third fastest, more than a second slower than the pacesetter.

Briton Jenson Button was fourth quickest in a BAR, reinforcing his team's high expectations on a day that reflected recent test performances.

GENUINE CHALLENGERS

The title-challenging Williams pairing of Ralf Schumacher and Montoya were more than a second adrift of the Ferraris in the second session with the sixth and seventh fastest times respectively.

"Probably not the result I was looking forward to achieve in this first practice," said the Colombian. "We've now got some work ahead of us to close the gap to the Ferrari drivers who have been very quick today."

Briton David Coulthard, last year's race winner for McLaren and destined to leave at the end of the season to make way for Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, was ahead of Finnish team mate Kimi Raikkonen in both sessions.

"I'm not too happy with the set-up of the car at the moment but we will work on it overnight and hopefully improve for tomorrow," said Raikkonen, last year's overall runner-up.

For the first time, all but the top four teams were allowed to run a third car with their test driver.

Jordan, Toyota, BAR and Jaguar took advantage of the opportunity while Minardi had their application for a super licence for Belgian Bas Leinders turned down.

BAR's Briton Anthony Davidson was the only test driver to break into the top 10, finishing ninth fastest in the morning.


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