| Italy’s Jarno Trulli of Renault after the first qualifying session on Friday for the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. Trulli clocked the fastest lap time of 1: 30.281. (Reuters)
Suzuka: Michael Schumacher took first blood in the title showdown here Friday when he outpaced rival Kimi Raikkonen as Jarno Trulli finished fastest in first qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix.
Italian Trulli, driving for Renault, was fastest in morning practice and he continued his challenge with a lap of one min 30.281 seconds to finish just 0.062 seconds ahead of German Williams driver Ralf Schumacher.
World champion Michael Schumacher, who needs a maximum of one point from this weekend’s race to clinch the title, could only manage the third fastest time, almost two tenths of a second slower than Trulli.
But he will have been satisfied to outpace his only title rival, McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, by just less than a tenth of a second as the Finn finished fifth ahead of Saturday’s grid-deciding qualifying session.
Raikkonen needs to win to keep alive his slim hopes of a maiden championship victory but even then he needs Schumacher to finish out of the points in order to steal the crown.
The Finn kept cool under the pressure but was also beaten by his own teammate, Scot David Coulthard, who finished fourth after finding his rhythm in the single-lap qualifying session.
Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who spun into a gravel trap at the end of the morning practice session, could only manage sixth fastest time in the second Renault.
Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello, from Brazil, finished seventh ahead of Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, in eighth for Williams, with Australian Mark Webber and German Nick Heidfeld completing the top ten for Jaguar and Sauber, respectively.
Local hero Takuma Sato made his BAR-Honda debut as a replacement for Jacques Villeneuve, who walked out on the team Thursday, and he finished an impressive 11th fastest after going out last in the session.
Michael Schumacher had been the first man out and his quick time proved out of reach for Raikkonen, the next man out, and subsequent efforts from Barrichello and Montoya.
His brother Ralf, however, bumped him down to second and Trulli pushed him further down the order less than half-way through the tightly fought session which ended with the top ten drivers covered by little more than a second.