Only an inspired performance from Renault's Jarno Trulli prevented Ferrari from crowning the debut of its new F2003-GA with a one-two finish in Friday's qualifying session at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Running behind both Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello courtesy of his current points position, Trulli brought the Spanish crowd to the edge of its seats by all but matching the world champion around the 2.9mile circuit, and edging out his Brazilian team-mate as he took the chequered flag to complete his three-lap run.

After a promising morning, Renault could have expected to be mixing it in the top ten, but probably could not have anticipated quite how close Trulli was going to get to the new Ferrari which, despite only recording tenth and 15th fastest times in free practice, looked menacing both on and off the track. By the end of the qualifying session, Trulli's lap left him in second place - and therefore as the penultimate runner in Saturday's grid-setting session - just 0.019secs down on Schumacher and almost seven-hundredths up on Barrichello.

Until his appearance, however, it appeared that the svelte new F200-GA was going to run away with the session, much as it had done in recent group tests. Although reliability problems when running in Italy had delayed its introduction by one race, the Scuderia appeared to have made the right decision to bring it to Barcelona when Schumacher and Barrichello opened up a seven-tenths gap on first runner Kimi Raikkonen. Just 0.088secs split Schumacher and Barrichello after they had completed their runs, leaving only a small opportunity for anyone to interrupt the prospects of an all-red front row but, in a session where most - if not all - competitors are adjudged to be running on low fuel loads, Trulli managed to pull a rabbit out of his crash hat.

Balancing a minor deficit in the first sector with a similar gain in the last, the Italian - who had benefited from an extra two hours' running early in the morning - managed to squeeze between the two red cars, setting up an intriguing final qualifying session on Saturday.

For his part, Barrichello had already had to switch to the spare car ahead of his qualifying run, and was therefore not quite as happy with its set-up as he embarked, fifth man out, on his quest to better his team-mate's pace-setting lap. Like Trulli, there was little to choose between him and Schumacher, but the fractional time gaps the crept in in sectors two and three were enough to demote the Brazilian, who was marginally quicker in T1, to an eventual P3.

Schumacher, meanwhile, was probably sitting back a little more comfortably in the Ferrari garage once hi steam-mate had crossed the line, having himself put in an almost perfect lap of the Circuit de Catalunya. Three-quarters of a second up on the man most are tipping to challenge for his crown was also a handy margin, although Trulli would certainly have given the German something to think about.

Just in case it appears that he was the exception to the rule, the Renault driver was not the only one to shine in the session, however. Jenson Button, Mark Webber and both Toyota drivers all put in scintillating laps in their own right, claiming positions four to seven as they did so, and leaving McLaren and WilliamsF1 licking their wounds around the mid-table mark.

Of the quartet, Button was the first to head out, immediately following BAR team-mate Jacques Villeneuve on the track. The Briton, however, was unaware of what the Canadian - with whom his relationship is gradually thawing - had done, or, indeed, of his own progress, after he later revealed that the on-board time display had failed before he began his flying lap. Undeterred, however, he pressed on, revelling in the handling of the Honda-powered 005, to clock a time just four-tenths down on the leading Ferrari - and almost a second up on his team-mate!

Webber was not far behind the Brit, either on the track or the timesheets. The Jaguar pilot was headed for the top five throughout his lap, despite a moment at turn nine when he had to catch the R4, and was another to praise the handling of his car afterwards. In contrast to last season, the aero package on the Jaguar appears to be working well, and the all-round package made up for the relatively slow speeds through the sector traps.

The two Toyotas emerged directly in Webber's wake, with Panis and da Matta straddling the mid-session commercial break. The Frenchman, courtesy of his prior point-scoring record in F1, was the first of the red-and-white pilots on the road, and matched Schumacher to the tenth through T1. From there, it was the odd loss here and there, but he still managed to underline his morning practice effort with what was, at the time, fifth spot, between Button and Webber.

Team-mate da Matta followed after a brief lull in proceedings and, if anything appeared to be on course to match Trulli's earlier effort. Despite still finding his feet with the TF103, and not being 100 per cent au fait with the Barcelona track, the diminutive Brazilian took his chance by the scruff of the neck and matched the world champion through two sectors. Only a slight slip on the third, where he lost a couple of tenths, deprived the reigning CART champion of joining Schumacher at the very head of the field. Instead, he had to settle for a season's best of fourth.

With an unlikely top seven, which featured a 4-3 advantage in favour of Michelin, the rest of the field was headed by the two McLarens. Still using the revised version of last year's MP4-17, Raikkonen and David Coulthard would have hoped to have been closer to the pace - even in spite of the arrival of the F2003-GA - but had to settle for eighth and ninth. Raikkonen's lap was relatively clean - if still some way off the morning pace set by Ralf Schumacher and the ever-present Trulli, while Coulthard continued his penchant for using the kerbs a little too much and slipped behind his young team-mate in the third sector.

Fernando Alonso, third in the morning session, was only tenth, unable to match his team-mate's performance in front of his home crowd. Perhaps feeling the need to put on a show, the young Spaniard got mildly crossed up mid-lap and was down in each sector. Nevertheless, he was still able to end the day ahead of Ralf Schumacher, who had headed the field in free practice, but ran wide at Repsol and used too much kerb in the middle sector and trailed by 1.2secs as a result.

Villeneuve's exploits earned him only twelfth place, but this was still good enough to put the second BAR ahead of the second Williams, which Juan Montoya simply could not get to lap to his liking. Indeed, the pair were split by Antonio Pizzonia, as the under-fire Brazilian put in a steady if unspectacular lap to take 13th place as he attempts to rebuild his reputation within the Jaguar camp.

Running last but one on the road, 'Jungle Boy' was already half a second down on Michael Schumacher by the end of the first sector, courtesy of a slow exit from turn five, but pulled himself together thereafter to lose only a little more over the final two portions of the lap.

Ralph Firman, meanwhile, another man reportedly looking to safeguard his seat, was five places further back, but will have been encouraged by his pace relative to his team-mate. Where Pizzonia's task was made all the harder by Mark Webber's position in the top ten, Firman had only to shoot for Giancarlo Fisichella's lowly 14th place. The Briton, still admitting that he is feeling his way with the EJ13, used all his prior knowledge of testing at the Circuit de Catalunya to overcome a sideways moment at turn seven and come in four-tenths from the Italian.

This meant that the two yellow cars sandwiched the Saubers, which Heinz-Harald Frentzen (16th) and Nick Heidfeld (17th) simply could not get to produce sufficient speed to be in the midfield ballpark, and finished ahead of the two Minardis, which looked to be a handful - or, rather, a slow handful. As in free practice and the extra testing session, Justin Wilson and Jos Verstappen were well off the pace of even the slower midfielders, with the Dutchman finally garnering 19th spot despite running his right-hand wheels through the dirt at turn seven.