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Schumi's Ferrari fastest in practice

3/20/2004

SEPANG, Malaysia -- Ferrari's Formula One
champion Michael Schumacher showed he was still the man to beat
with the fastest time in Saturday's final practice for the
Malaysian Grand Prix.

The German, in a world of his own in the opening race in
Australia as he launched his bid for an unprecedented seventh
championship, blasted around the steamy Sepang circuit quicker
than ever.

He led the first of two 45 minute sessions with a fastest
time of one minute 33.391 seconds in brilliant sunshine.

Schumacher then stayed top in the second with a time of
1:33.526, 0.037 faster than the Williams of Colombian Juan Pablo
Montoya.

McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, fastest on Friday, failed to set a
time in the first session but was seventh quickest in the final
run before the afternoon's controversial and soon to be modified
qualifying marathon.

While Ferrari remained in front, Schumacher's rivals could
take heart that the gap between them and the red cars had
narrowed.

Renault's Fernando Alonso, the Spaniard who started last
year's race as the youngest grand prix driver to secure pole
position, was second quickest in the first session with a lap
0.784 of a second slower than Schumacher.

By the final practice session, watched by a sparse crowd on
a general election weekend in Malaysia, the top nine were within
that margin.

Schumacher's younger brother Ralf was third quickest in a
Williams, 0.447 slower than the Ferrari, with Renault's Jarno
Trulli fourth and Brazilian Rubens Barrichello fifth in the
second Ferrari.

Briton Jenson Button, in a BAR, last year's race winner
Raikkonen and McLaren team mate David Coulthard followed with
Ferrari's Bridgestone tyre supplier facing a strong challenge
from Michelin in rising temperatures.

The French manufacturer had eight cars in the top 10.

Malaysia, with air temperatures of around 34 degrees Celsius
on Saturday morning, has been one of the hottest and most
demanding races on the calendar although next month's inaugural
Bahrain Grand Prix could challenge that.

Sunday's race is also seen as a key test for Ferrari's
rivals after the champions' dominance in Melbourne.

Another Ferrari victory could signal the start of another
record-breaking year for Schumacher.