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Schumacher leads Alonso in China practice

Title rivals Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso were separated by a fraction of a second after a damp start to the Chinese GP weekend on Friday.

india Updated: Sep 29, 2006 16:28 IST

Title rivals Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso were separated by barely the blink of an eye after a damp start to the Chinese Grand Prix weekend on Friday.

Less than a 10th of a second split Ferrari's seven times world champion, fifth fastest in the afternoon practice session at a grey and gusty Shanghai circuit, and Renault's championship leader.

Alonso is two points clear of his German rival in a Formula One duel with three rounds remaining and every likelihood of hanging in the balance all the way to next month's finale in Brazil.

The Spaniard won in China last season, while Schumacher had a nightmare and spun out, but Ferrari have triumphed in five of the last six races.

"Compared to last year, we are much more competitive and we hope to be able to pay back the fans with a better result than back then," Schumacher told reporters.

"The fight with our closest rivals seems to be very tight, even if we have not yet had time to take a close look at all the data," added the 37-year-old German, who is retiring at the end of the season.

"I like driving at this track. It is very tough with a big variety of corner types."

Ferrari are three points clear of Renault in the constructors' standings but their hopes of increasing that lead were hit when Felipe Massa suffered an engine failure in the second session.

The unscheduled engine change meant the Brazilian will be demoted 10 places on Sunday's starting grid.

Schumacher and Alonso had kept out of each other's way in the morning, with the young Spaniard watching and waiting from the pit wall as a string of test drivers lapped in front of almost deserted grandstands.

Austrian reserve driver Alexander Wurz was quickest for Williams in both sessions, with a lap of one minute 35.574 seconds in the morning and 1:35.539 in the afternoon as the weather deteriorated into a steady drizzle.

"I think we need to be a bit cautious analysing the times because the conditions today are quite different to what we expect for the race," Alonso said.

"But so far the Michelins (tyres) seem to be working well"

German teenager Sebastian Vettel, who has set an impressive pace in his two previous Friday appearances for BMW Sauber, was second on the afternoon timesheets.

Neither he nor Wurz will race on Sunday.

Alonso, who last year became Formula One's youngest champion, has a new and more powerful unit in China after a failure at Monza three weeks ago.

"I am very confident, as always," the Spaniard had told reporters earlier.

"I think that for the last three races we should be very competitive... the car is really at maximum performance now, with no problems.

"We should be very quick. Now it is up to us and Ferrari to decide who is quickest."

McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, who takes over from Schumacher at Ferrari next year, had a spin in the morning and ended the second session in 21st place.

"We intended to do the minimum amount of running as usual on a Friday to conserve our engines and the Michelin tyres," said team boss Ron Dennis.

"We waited a little too long for the track surface to clean up, which resulted in both drivers being hampered by the damp track conditions."