Michael Schumacher put Ferrari's woes of last year behind him and claimed pole position in qualifying for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. His best time was 1:31.431 but he came close to losing pole to his new teammate Felipe Massa. The Brazilian was just a few hundredths behind to make it a Ferrari front row. Jenson Button gave Honda a good start and took third on the grid.
A quick recap of the new qualifying format: the one hour session starts with all cars on track, with no fuel restrictions, and after 15 minutes the six slowest drop out and their times decide grid slots 17 to 22. After another 15 minutes the next six slowest drop out and take positions 11 to 16. The remaining 10 cars have the last 20 minutes to fight for pole with race fuel on board and whatever fuel they use is replaced afterwards.
When the time runs out in the first two sessions, the session is stopped dead. In the last session any driver on a hot lap can complete it. If a car stops on track, or spins off etc, that driver's qualifying is finished. There's no recovering to the pits and going out for another lap, it's over and the car will be sent to parc ferme.
Super Aguri's Yuji Ide was out first and he struggled a bit with the wind and the sand on the track. Several other cars followed him and within a couple of minutes half the field were out on the circuit. Ide set the first time but was quickly replaced by the Toro Rosso of Tonio Liuzzi and soon the time sheet was getting busy.
Liuzzi held station and the Honda of Rubens Barrichello slotted into second, followed by Liuzzi's teammate Scott Speed. Ralf Schumacher's Toyota came next then the two MF1s of Christijan Albers and Tiago Monteiro. Half the drivers decided not to go out for a banker lap and left it until the last five minutes to go for a time.
Kimi Raikkonen came to grief after 10 minutes when the McLaren spun at turn 10 and the right rear wheel came adrift and the rear wing flew off. It was a rear suspension lower wishbone failure that was the problem; the session was red flagged and the car limped back to the pits, quite badly damaged at the rear.
"There is not much I can say about today," Raikkonen remarked. "It is very disappointing to not even complete one timed lap as I believe that the team had a good strategy for the new qualifying system, and I could have been amongst the quickest."
The drivers that had yet to set a time only had a chance for one flyer once the remainder of the session continued, including the Ferraris and the Renaults. Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber was at the top of the times with a 1:33.374 when the track went green and there was a mad rush to get out.
Massa got a good head start, as did Button. As the pack went round and spooled across the line, Fernando Alonso's Renault was the one who took the advantage and posted 1:32.433 to secure the top spot. Teammate Giancarlo Fisichella was next, then the McLaren of Juan Pablo Montoya and the two Ferraris, Michael Schumacher leading Massa.
That was the end of the first 15 minutes; the six slowest cars to drop out started with Ralf Schumacher's Toyota and he will have grid spot 17. Then came the MF1s of Albers and Monteiro for 18th and 19th and the two Super Aguris, Takuma Sato 20th and Ide 21st. Raikkonen's disastrous start puts him at the back of the grid in 22nd.
The times of the remaining cars were cleared and the next 15 minutes kicked off. Liuzzi was first to post a time, slightly slower than he was previously, and Red Bull's Christian Klien went a couple of seconds quicker to go to the top. His teammate David Coulthard was also in the top six, along with Barrichello and Toro Rosso's Scott Speed.
BMW Sauber's Jacques Villeneuve slotted into second but was demoted by teammate Heidfeld. Montoya headed out for his second attempt and undercut Klien's top time by six tenths. Again, some drivers left it until the last five minutes to join the session and Michael took the second fastest position but immediately lost it to Massa.
Nico Rosberg had done quite well in the first session but spun his Williams when he went out in the second and time was running out. Alonso once again belted out a last minute flyer to claim the top spot at the end, 1:31.215. Montoya was next, then came Fisichella, Heidfeld, Massa and Michael to complete the top six.
The six who lost out started with Villeneuve, who will take grid spot 11. Rosberg didn't recover from his spin in time to complete another run and will be 12th, followed by Coulthard in 13th. The second Toyota of Jarno Trulli also failed to make the grade and will start 14th, while the Toro Rossos of Liuzzi and Speed will be 15th and 16th respectively.
The remaining 10 cars had their times cleared and fuelled up to race level for the final 20 minute session. Most drivers were out on track fairly promptly -- the more laps they could put in the more the fuel level would drop and give them a better chance of a quick lap towards the end with a lighter car.
Massa was an early leader, followed by Barrichello, Michael, Alonso and the remaining Williams of Mark Webber. The Hondas were the first to duck in for a change of tyres, then Massa, and Michael was the first to go for a proper flyer. He clocked 1:31.595 to go fastest but was demoted shortly afterwards by Massa's fractionally quicker 1:31.523.
With five minutes to go most cars skipped into the pits for a tyre change in preparation for the final assault. Michael was first to go for it and took provisional pole with 1:31.431 -- and there he stayed. Massa came so close to his maiden pole position, less than half a tenth behind Michael to make it a Ferrari front row.
"Amazing result," said Michael. "To be honest I wasn't expecting to be on pole, I thought we might be in touch with the leaders but not in front of everybody, so it really is a wonderful surprise. I'm so happy for the team because they all worked so hard to achieve this result, especially when one considers where we were at the end of last season."
It's the first time Massa has made the front row of the grid. "This is a day that won't be easy to forget. To qualify on the front row at my first race with Ferrari makes me feel very proud of myself and for what the team has managed to achieve," he commented. "Tomorrow it's going to be a difficult race: we know that our rivals are very strong but we'll give it everything we've got to try and bring home the best result possible."
Button took third, and the top three were separated by only a tenth, while the second Honda of Barrichello ended sixth. Renault appeared a bit conservative with Alonso fourth and Fisichella ninth. The sole McLaren of Montoya claimed fifth and Webber did a reasonable job for seventh. Klien gave Red Bull a boost with eighth and Heidfeld rounded off the top 10.
"I'm reasonably happy with third place," said Button. "Looking at how the new qualifying panned out, for me it was very exciting. It was non-stop for me in the car and it must have been great for the fans watching at home. On to tomorrow now when we'll see how everyone's fuel strategies play out. It should be a great race and I'm looking forward to it."
Notable in the last session were Massa, who very nearly prevented Michael from equalling Ayrton Senna's record number of 65 pole positions, and Klien, who outshone teammate Coulthard. Michael looked as calm and focused as ever but there were no other particularly stand-out performances.
The new format was certainly quite entertaining in the first two sessions, although it was livened up by the unfortunate Raikkonen. Having the last 10 start with race fuel just meant all they did was drive around to burn it off until the car was light enough to go for a decent flyer at the end. Good for the spectators though.
Ferrari certainly looked strong but fuel strategies and tyres are still a factor in the race and, as always, it's not certain what everyone is doing. How it will play out on Sunday will be very interesting to find out. Final top eight classification: M. Schumacher, Massa, Button, Alonso, Montoya, Barrichello, Webber, Klien.