Rubens Barrichello returned to the top of the times in the final practice session before qualifying begins for the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The Brazilian struck back for Ferrari after David Coulthard had topped the times for rivals McLaren in the opening 45-minute session, putting up the best time of the weekend with ten minutes remaining and lowering Jarno Trulli's Friday benchmark by some 2.7secs.

Fastest of all in the first Friday session, Barrichello set out his stall by tailing Coulthard closely in the morning's opening practice, then moved to the front late in the day with a lap good enough to keep him two-tenths clear of the pack as the chequered flag waved.

Behind him was Schumacher, but Ralf, not Michael. The younger German struggled with set-up and oversteer throughout Friday, but had found a sufficient cure to enable him to put the BMW-Williams second overall after an inspired morning's practice. The blue-and-white car proved to be a frequent visitor to the top of the speed charts in both Saturday sessions and, having earlier shared the top two places on time with brother Michael, Ralf duly clinched second spot for himself with his final tour.

Michael could manage only fourth, separated from his sibling by the faster McLaren of Mika Hakkinen, but will have been working towards a better set-up for Sunday after showing his qualifying hand 24 hours earlier. The German moved to the front of the field with just 13 minutes on the second session clock, and further upped the ante with a similar amount of time remaining, but was powerless to prevent the eventual top three overtaking him as time ran out.

Hakkinen ended the session three-tenths shy of Barrichello, suggesting that McLaren cannot be counted out of the mix when it comes to qualifying this afternoon. The Finn also racked up top speeds through the traps, but opted out of the late charge for times.

Team-mate Coulthard was one of two drivers not to improve his mark between sessions - Jos Verstappen was the other - and dropped to fifth as a result. Like Schumacher Sr and Hakkinen, however, the Scot appeared assured of his qualifying set-up and was working in other directions during the final 45 minutes.

Behind the big four and the surprising Williams, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jordan team-mate Trulli set the midfield pace, lapping two and four-tenths of a second off Coulthard respectively. Both drivers found time during the session and reported no major incidents.

Eddie Irvine rebounded from a relatively quiet opening 45mins to take eighth place for Jaguar, suggesting that his Friday form was no entirely the result of using new tyres at the right time, while Olivier Panis again took ninth for BAR-Honda, ahead of team-mate Jacques Villeneuve (twelfth) but trailing both Jordans.

Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the top ten, as he and team-mate Nick Heidfeld turned in further good performances with the impressive Sauber C20. Villeneuve was followed by Juan Montoya in 13th place, the Colombian using older Michelins to discover the limits of his Williams. The former CART champion indulged in a couple of spins, and thrilled the meagre crowd with some tail-out antics as he strove to match team-mate Schumacher's times.

Jean Alesi found a chunk of time in the leading Prost, as did Jenson Button in the second of the two Benettons. There were improvements right through the field as the temperature and humidity rose in Sepang, with even the tail-ender Minardi's reducing their best marks by around a second.

Saturday Free Practice - Combined sessions - Malaysian Grand Prix.

1. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 36.188secs
2. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW 1min 36.475secs
3. Mika Hakkinen Finland McLaren-Mercedes 1min 36.519secs
4. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 36.548secs5. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes 1min 36.814secs
6. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Jordan-Honda 1min 37.030secs
7. Jarno Trulli Italy Jordan-Honda 1min 37.231secs
8. Eddie Irvine Britain Jaguar-Cosworth 1min 37.360secs
9. Olivier Panis France BAR-Honda 1min 37.391secs
10. Kimi Raikkonen Finland Sauber-Petronas 1min 37.428secs
11. Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas 1min 37.459secs
12. Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda 1min 37.463secs
13. Juan Montoya Britain Williams-BMW 1min 37.502secs
14. Luciano Burti Brazil Jaguar-Cosworth 1min 37.636secs
15. Jean Alesi France Prost-Acer 1min 38.130secs
16. Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Benetton-Renault 1min 38.548secs
17. Jenson Button Britain Benetton-Renault 1min 38.712secs
18. Enrique Bernoldi Brazil Arrows-Asiatech 1min 38.958secs19. Jos Verstappen Holland Arrows-Asiatech 1min 39.401secs
20. Gaston Mazzacane Argentina Prost-Acer 1min 39.651secs
21. Fernando Alonso Spain Minardi-European 1min 39.956secs
22. Tarso Marques Brazil Minardi-European 1min 40.171secs

[107 per cent time: 1min 42.921secs]

[Details in italics denote no improvement in second session]



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