As expected, it came down to a battle between Ferrari and McLaren in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix and a very close one it was. Felipe Massa was the man who triumphed, his Ferrari taking pole position with a time of 1:21.421. Just three hundredths behind was McLaren's Fernando Alonso, who will start alongside on the front row, and Kimi Raikkonen put his Ferrari third. To complete the quartet, Lewis Hamilton's McLaren was fourth.
It was warm for qualifying, the track temperature around 50 degrees at the start, much warmer than it was at testing recently. The Spykers of Adrian Sutil and Christijan Albers were out early, as were the Toyota duo of Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli. Nico Rosberg and Alex Wurz followed in the Williams cars, and the Toro Rossos of Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed.
Also out were the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and David Coulthard, the Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson and the Renaults of Heikki Kovalainen and Giancarlo Fisichella. Trulli clocked the first time, 1:23.095, then was replaced by Rosberg and Liuzzi in quick succession. Coulthard was next, 1:22.491, and Sato slotted into second.
Davidson managed 1:22.353 and meanwhile, the Hondas of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button and the McLarens of Hamilton and Alonso made their way out on track. Raikkonen was the first Ferrari out, along with BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica, which left only Massa to put in an appearance.
Speed had what turned out to be a transmission problem and headed back to the pits, while Hamilton took over at the top, 1:21.129. Heidfeld took second but lost it straight away to Raikkonen, who in turn fell to Alonso. It seemed that Fisichella also had some problem, possibly electrical, and had returned to the garage. Massa left it pretty late to put in a lap but snatched second when he did.
In the last couple of minutes there was a rush to try to and improve on positions from those outside the top six. Albers had a trip across the gravel but recovered, while Fisichella reappeared but there was no sign of Speed. Webber was in the garage out of the car and obviously not going to run again, another with some kind of car issues.
Sato and Davidson did a good job to go through to the next session but those who were dropped started with Schumacher in 17th. Then came Wurz, Webber with a probable hydraulic gremlin, Sutil, Albers and Speed, who did not set a time. Hamilton, who had lowered his time fractionally to 1:21.120, remained fastest, followed by Massa, Alonso and Heidfeld.
It was a slow start to Q2, three minutes gone before cars began to head out. The Renaults were among the first, as well as Coulthard, Rosberg and the Super Aguris. Trulli clocked 1:21.931 to kick off but Coulthard quickly took over by a few tenths. Rosberg took third then Fisichella second, and Kovalainen went to the top with a 1:21.623. Sato had come to a halt on track which bought out the yellow flag.
Only six drivers had set a time by then and there was just under seven minutes remaining when the track went green. Hamilton began with a 1:20.713 and Raikkonen took second, Heidfeld third. Massa clocked 1:20.597 and Alonso went out for his shot with four minutes left. The Spaniard took fourth to put him comfortably into the final session. Meanwhile, Lizzui had the same problem as Speed and did not run.
The next six to drop out started with Rosberg in 11th, then Barrichello, Sato, Button, Davidson, who had a big off track moment into the gravel but managed to extract himself, and Liuzzi who didn't set a time. Massa remained at the top from Hamilton, Raikkonen and Alonso -- all set for a Ferrari/McLaren scrap in the pole shootout and BMW holding station as best of the rest.
Hamilton led out the queue of cars at the start of the fuel burning period, followed by the Ferraris, and he and Raikkonen were having a little scrap of their own in the first couple of minutes. Hamilton and Massa were early leaders on the time sheet then Alonso dropped into the 1:22 bracket to take over. Around the eight minute mark Heidfeld and Trulli were the first to head into the pits for a tyre change.
Soon everyone was set for the first serious lap of the session and Heidfeld slotted into second behind Alonso's previous best set in the fuel burning stage. Raikkonen was absolutely scorching round, as was Hamilton in front of him on track. The McLaren went quickest but Raikkonen was quicker, 1:22.084, and Massa took second but Alonso outdid them all, 1:21.661, and the crowd went bonkers.
But there was time for another go -- a quick dash in for tyres then off again. Hamilton couldn't better Alonso's previous and took second but once again Raikkonen snatched it off him. Massa was flying and clocked 1:21.421 and only Alonso was left to take pole position off him. The champ put in a good effort but had to concede defeat, just three hundredths of a second down on Massa.
It was a nail biting finish, with any of the top four a possible for pole but Massa was the one who made it stick, his third consecutive pole position. The times were very close between Raikkonen and Hamilton as well, just a few hundredths separating them. All four drivers were the only ones in the 1:21 bracket and it looks set to be another exciting battle between them in Sunday's race.
"I really got a great lap!" Massa said. "This third consecutive pole shows that our car is really competitive. My first run was not perfect, but on the second I managed to get things right without making the slightest mistake. Tomorrow's race will be very close and I hope that with a huge crowd like we saw today in the grandstands, the spectators will see a real spectacle."
Alonso was surely giving it all for pole but was satisfied with second. "A good qualifying, and I'm pleased to be on the front row for my home race," he commented. "There is no doubt that the race will be as close and as competitive as today's qualifying however I'm confident that I can challenge for the victory. The car is working well, and I'm enjoying driving it in front of all the fans."
Raikkonen was perhaps a little peeved about his grid slot. "It seems that taking third place in qualifying is now becoming a habit," said the Finn. "It's not a bad position, but obviously you always hope to be in front of everyone. I hope I will be able to make up some places, but I know it won't be easy. My feeling for the car is improving: there is still work to do, but it's going in the right direction."
Kubica got the upper hand of Heidfeld at BMW, fifth to the German's seventh, and Trulli split them in sixth which was a pretty good effort for Toyota. Kovalainen put his Renault eighth and Fisichella was 10th, Coulthard in between them for Red Bull. About six tenths separated Kubica from Fisichella so while the focus was at the front, it was also close behind the top two teams.
It's a long run down to the first corner and those McLarens have been pretty quick off the line this year. Alonso will be going all out to get in front of Massa at the start of Sunday's race but he'd better not forget about Raikkonen and Hamilton behind him. It could be very interesting indeed. Final top ten classification: Massa, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Kubica, Trulli, Heidfeld, Kovalainen, Coulthard, Fisichella.