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Kimi: Qualifying vital at `finely-balanced` Fuji.

Defending Formula 1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen has suggested that securing a good grid position – not always his forté in 2008 – could be of vital importance in this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix, as the top 17 drivers all lapped within a second of each other in opening practice.

Raikkonen and title-chasing Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa alike lapped inside the top five throughout the first day around the 4.5km Fuji Speedway, with the Brazilian holding a narrow advantage in both sessions. As the battle for the crown teeters on a knife-edge, however, both recognise that even the slightest slip-up in qualifying in such an evenly-matched field could prove costly indeed come race day.

“It seems very finely-balanced with the lap times all very close,” acknowledged Raikkonen. “This means it will be very important to have a good qualifying, otherwise you run the risk of being a long way back on the grid. I think our car is going well on this track, though, and even if there is still some work to do to improve the handling, I am reasonably satisfied.

“The harder tyres are very consistent, while the softer ones seem to lose a bit of performance over a distance. They're not bad on the first lap, and it's a shame that on my last run I locked the wheel and was unable to do a good time. I will try to do the best I can for myself and for the team.”

“I am pleased with this first day in Japan,” added Massa, who ended the opening day fourth, less than three hundredths of a second adrift of title rival Lewis Hamilton in the McLaren-Mercedes and barely a tenth away from the top spot. “The balance of the car is very good, both on the first timed lap and over a distance.

“The times are very close, and maybe I could have been a bit further up the order in the afternoon session if I had not encountered traffic on my last run on the soft tyres. These seem to be very quick, which is no surprise, but also very consistent. I really want to do well this weekend, and we will try and win and bring home the best result possible for the two championships.”

Both the Scuderia's team principal Stefano Domenicali and technical director Luca Baldisserri preferred to err on the side of caution at the close of proceedings on day one in Japan – confident in the pace of the F2008 this weekend, but equally well aware of how the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have influenced a number of races already this year.

“I realise this might sound boring, but today was a usual Friday,” remarked Domenicali. “Generally, it was quite good – we got through a lot of work without any problems whatsoever, which is important. It's difficult to say what the real pecking order is, as the times are very close and we don't know how much fuel the drivers had on their various runs.

“We expected to be competitive at this track and I think we will be, as indeed will be our closest competitors. We have a very simple objective for this weekend, which is to put the two red cars in front of everyone else. It will be difficult, it will require us to do everything perfectly – and we will do our utmost to achieve that.”

“After the unusual setting of Singapore, we return to the usual Friday menu, looking for the best set-up on the car and comparing the tyres,” added Baldisserri. “We were out on-track a lot, getting through so many laps that we now have a lot of data to analyse to get the cars as well-prepared as possible for qualifying and the race.

“We must pay particular attention to the performance of the two types of Bridgestone tyre, which today split the opinion between our two drivers. From the timesheets we can see that the performance is very close between them, even if, when looking at the results, we have to always take into account the unknown relating to the amount of fuel on-board. Overall, a reasonably positive day.”

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