After a relatively quiet Friday in Japan, Ralf Schumacher and Juan Montoya ensured that Williams-BMW was firmly in the mix by topping the times on Saturday morning.

The two white-and-blue cars headed the times at the end of the two 45-minutes free practice sessions, even though Montoya ended his track time in the gravel trap, and underlined the team's intent to prevent rivals Ferrari completing another title double.

Both sessions were headed by Schumacher, the first from his brother and the second, faster, one from Montoya. Ralf was on it from the start of the day, joining Montoya at the top of the times in the early minutes of the first session, and remaining in the top few names almost throughout.

The first session boiled down to a battle between the two Schumacher brothers, as Michael briefly deposed Ralf ten minutes into the session, before the younger German regained the initiative midway through, holding his 1min 32.931secs best to the end.

The session was dominated, however, by the accident which befell Schumacher Sr's only remaining title rival. Kimi Raikkonen was hovering around the lower reaches of the top ten when he hooked two wheels off the road rounding turn one, then spearing across the gravel trap and into the barriers. The front left corner of the McLaren was badly damaged, but Raikkonen managed to clamber out before cutting a disconsolate figure as he watched the rest of the session from the sidelines.

Behind the two Schumachers, Rubens Barrichello gave Ferrari two places in the top three, albeit some four-tenths shy of his team-mate's best effort. The Brazilian was one of four Bridgestone runners in the top ten, with Nick Heidfeld's Sauber taking a surprise fifth spot, and Jenson Button's BAR-Honda eighth.

The entire top ten was somewhat unpredictable, with Heidfeld, Cristiano da Matta, Justin Wilson and Button all sandwiched between the fourth-placed Montoya and ninth-placed David Coulthard. It was a good showing for the two younger Britons, who had languished towards the tail-end of the field on Friday, while Button also managed to get through the 45 minutes without an engine failure. Jarno Trulli, pacesetter on day one , rounded out the top ten.

Raikkonen's mishap restricted the Fin to twelfth spot behind Fernando Alonso in the second Renault.

The second session proved to be generally faster than the first, with only Jos Verstappen, Heidfeld and David Coulthard - who failed to set a time at all - the only ones not to go quicker.

Trulli and Alonso set the ball rolling by jumping straight to the top of the fresh timesheet, but it was not long before Williams and Ferrari resumed their battle for supremacy.

Montoya was the first to show, deposing Trulli with a lap of 1min 31.422secs - quicker than his team-mate had managed in session one - and it was another quarter of an hour before Ralf replied with something faster. His effort of 1min 31.149secs would remain untouched to the chequered flag.

Brother Michael tried to get in on the act, but found himself unable to breach the white-and-blue wall, while team-mate Barrichello added is weight to the fight, but was unable to overcome Trulli, who eventually clung on to fourth spot to confirm Renault's position as chief spoiler in the title scrap.

Remarkably, Raikkonen returned to the track to take sixth spot behind the Brazilian, the McLaren mechanics working like demons to repair the damage to his MP4-17D and get him out 18 minutes into the session. Raikkonen rewarded them by instantly posting the third fastest time, before gradually being pushed back a few places.

Toyota began to get in on the act in the second part of the morning, with Olivier Panis and da Matta overcoming a pair of understeering TF103s to claim seventh and ninth places, sandwiching the second Renault of Alonso. Jenson Button rounded out the top ten to keep Honda's interest in the battle of Japan alive.

New BAR team-mate Takuma Sato was, like Raikkonen, a late starter in the session, but developed during the 45 minutes to take eleventh spot behind Button. The pair were split by a couple of tenths, but Button showed that, with a little track time, he could come in ahead of the local hero. The Briton completed 40 laps in all during the two sessions as he attempted to make up for the time lost after his engine failure on Friday morning.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was twelfth in what could be his last free practice session, recovering from an early moment when his Sauber swapped ends on him.

The German finished ahead of both Jaguars, with Wilson improving his time but dropping down the order to sit just behind team-mate Mark Webber. Despite being only 13th and 14th, however, Wilson will take some succour from the fact that only a tenth separated the two green cars.

The session ended with more cars in the gravel trap, as Alonso lost an engine and caused both himself and Montoya to pirouette off the road, bringing out the yellow flags and preventing any meaningful improvements.

 

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