Defending Formula One champion Mika Hakkinen of McLaren was the fastest, while chief rival Eddie Irvine of Ferrari slumped to 10th in a practice session yesterday for the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka.
David Coulthard, McLaren's other driver, crashed after clocking the second-fastest time of 1 minute 41.894 seconds, behind Hakkinen's 1:41.746. Michael Schumacher, Irvine's Ferrari teammate, finished the two-hour session over the 3.643-mile circuit with the third-fastest time of 1:42.215.
Coulthard said that his car shed its rear wing and left front wheel when he skidded off the track and spun backward into the tire barrier, and that it was being stripped down for an overnight rebuild. "But I know that the team will work hard to fix it before tomorrow, so I am looking forward to a competitive qualifying session," he said.
Irvine, who goes into Sunday's showdown race with 70 points, four ahead of Hakkinen, had an unimpressive time of 1:43.375.
"I don't think things are as bad as they look from my lap time today," Irvine said.
Hakkinen needs to win the season finale to retain the title he won at the same track last year. If Irvine wins, he will be Ferrari's first champion in 20 years.
* CART: Max Papis can still feel the disappointment in the pit of his stomach. The Italian driver overwhelmed the field in July at the U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway, leading 143 of 250 laps, before running out of fuel while out front on the last trip around the two-mile, high-banked oval.
That gave the victory to Tony Kanaan, CART's top rookie last season, and left Papis with an empty feeling and a renewed sense of determination to get to the winner's circle.
Papis, 30, will get another chance Sunday in the season-ending Marlboro 500 at California Speedway in Fontana, a virtual carbon copy of its sister track in Michigan. Papis, yet to win a race in four seasons in CART, was asked if his showing at Michigan makes him a favorite in California.
"For me, in my heart, I'm always the favorite," he said. "Michigan is just the proof that we can do a good job."
The spotlight this week, however, is mostly on the championship battle between leader Dario Franchitti and rookie Juan Montoya, who trails by nine points.
* CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS: Bidding for his second series championship but trailing rival Greg Biffle by 21 points entering today's season-ending NAPA Auto Parts 200 at California Speedway, Jack Sprague grabbed the No. 3 starting position for the race he won a year ago.
The 1997 series champion bettered Biffle by 21 positions in the 36-truck field, posting a lap of 173.456 mph. He was just fractionally slower than Andy Houston, who backed up his 1998 California Speedway pole-winning speed with a fast lap of 173.561.