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Test trio lead Schumacher in first practice

By Staff
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NUERBURGRING, Germany, May 5 (Reuters) A trio of test drivers led by Williams' Alexander Wurz set the pace in today's first practice for the European Grand Prix with Michael Schumacher close behind.

Ferrari's Schumacher, winner at Imola two weeks ago and seeking to prove his team are genuine championship contenders again after a year of struggle, was the quickest race driver.

The seven-times world champion made only a brief appearance before his home fans however, completing just four laps during the hour-long session.

Austrian Wurz did 20 laps, lapping with a best time of one minute, 32.079 seconds.

Honda's reserve Anthony Davidson was second quickest, 0.320 seconds slower, with BMW Sauber's Polish tester Robert Kubica third on the timesheets.

None of that top three will race on Sunday, the fifth round of the championship, which some expect to be a battle between champions Renault and Mercedes-powered McLaren.

The main question to be answered at the weekend concerns Schumacher and just how competitive his Bridgestone-shod Ferrari will prove against Michelin runners Renault and McLaren after the Imola success.

However Spaniard Fernando Alonso, 15 points clear of Schumacher in the championship with two wins and two second places, has said he sees McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya as his main rivals.

True to form, with teams saving engines that have to last for two races, Alonso did not set a timed lap in the first session.

Raikkonen, haunted by three retirements in a row at the Nuerburgring, was eighth fastest but the times were of little significance.

Ferrari's Felipe Massa and the Williams and BMW drivers did not venture out of the pit lane.

France's Franck Montagny returned to the Formula One track on his debut for Super Aguri after replacing hapless Japanese rookie Yuji Ide as a race driver.

The former Renault test driver, who will become the first Frenchman on the starting grid since Olivier Panis retired at the end of 2004, performed creditably against his Japanese team mate Takuma Sato.

Sato lapped in 1:37.817 and Montagny in 1:37.933.

REUTERS PG HS1623

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