DTM championship leader Gary Paffett took pole position in qualifying for the seventh round at the NÃ¼rburgring and Mika HÃ¤kkinen made it an all Mercedes front row in second. This came as a bit of a rude surprise to Audi, whose drivers had mostly...
DTM championship leader Gary Paffett took pole position in qualifying for the seventh round at the N?rburgring and Mika H?kkinen made it an all Mercedes front row in second. This came as a bit of a rude surprise to Audi, whose drivers had mostly been comfortably ahead of Mercedes during the practice sessions. Mattias Ekstr?m managed to get his Audi third, three and a half tenths off Paffett's pole time of 1:23.161.
There were other surprises too: Opel's Marcel F?ssler, who had been well on the pace on Friday and fastest in Saturday morning practice, didn't make the super-pole session. However, teammates Laurent Aiello and Heinz-Harald Frentzen did, in seventh and ninth respectively. The Mercedes of Jean Alesi also missed out on the super-pole, although the times were close with less than a second separating the top 15.
Ekstr?m was on provisional pole after the open qualifying session, with Audi teammate Tom Kristensen second and the year-old Audi of Christian Abt third. Paffett was the highest Mercedes in fifth, followed by more Audis; Allan McNish in another year-old model and then Martin Tomczyk. Bernd Schneider and H?kkinen started with eighth and 10th respectively, so going into the super-pole it was looking good for Audi.
H?kkinen was out first for his individually timed lap and initially it seemed a reasonable, but not spectacular time of 1:23.415. Frentzen followed on and was about four tenths down, then Schneider closed the gap by a couple of tenths to slot in behind teammate H?kkinen. Aiello's lap was good enough for fifth on the grid by the end but Tomczyk was a little disappointing to finish seventh.
McNish was one behind for eighth and Paffett undercut H?kkinen's time by two and a half tenths to take pole. Abt and Kristensen couldn't match their pace of the earlier session and finished six and ninth respectively. So by the time last man Ekstr?m took to the track, Mercedes was holding the top three spots with Paffett, H?kkinen and Schneider. Ekstr?m couldn't outdo the top two but demoted Schneider to take third on the grid.
"I pushed the car to the limit and didn't make a mistake," said Paffett. "After we had been behind the Audis in qualifying we changed the tyre pressure and therefore were able to warm up the tyres better. I am really happy about my pole position; it is the optimum basis for a strong result tomorrow."
Mercedes was clearly delighted -- the manufacturer is still running with the heaviest weight penalty and during the practice sessions it looked as if that may be taking its toll. It was a good result in qualifying but it remains to been seen if Mercedes can keep ahead of the Audis over a race distance.
"We made some small modifications to the car prior to the single-lap qualifying, and they obviously paid off," H?kkinen commented. "I'm satisfied about my second grid position although I'm not quite happy with the set-up. I expect a tough race tomorrow because the gaps between the drivers are very small."
Ekstr?m was not too pleased to miss out on pole. "My lap was okay as I didn't make any major mistakes," he said. "Nevertheless, I was far slower than in the qualifying session. This is a disappointment as I was keen on starting tomorrow's race from pole. Gary and Mika ahead of me, Bernd and Laurent behind me - the race will be anything but a breeze."
Opel was something of a mystery. F?ssler's pace from the morning disappeared in qualifying even though no changes were made to his car. Aiello, on the other hand, suddenly showed a good improvement after struggling on Friday. Frentzen will probably be a bit disappointed with ninth and the fourth member of the squad, Manuel Reuter, has been virtually anonymous all weekend.
Paffett leads Ekstr?m by just three points in the standings so there's a lot of tension at the front of the field. Kristensen is 13 points astray so he's still got a chance of the title but the rest are too far behind, unless something very bizarre happens in the next few races. But with the DTM, you never know…