The troubles for Toyota went away this afternoon in qualifying for the sixth US Grand Prix held on the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Jarno Trulli, the tenth driver to take timed laps secured pole position with his tour of 1:10.625.
Vital to Trulli's fast lap was his superiority in the first and third sectors, where he beat all 19 competitors. The Italian secured Toyota's first pole in its fourth year of F1 competition. "It's been a day of mixed emotions for the whole Toyota team and that makes this result all the sweeter.
"It's been a strange day and I didn't do many laps in practice," Trulli noted, "but I just had to stay calm and do my work despite the limited mileage. Obviously the tires remain a big concern for the race so we hope we can sort this problem out for tomorrow."
The final driver out of the pits, Kimi Raikkonen tried, but was unable to match Trulli and the McLaren driver settled for second with his lap of 1:10.694, only 0.069 seconds in arrears. Raikkonen was best in sector 2. Those two were the sole drivers under one minute, 11 seconds on the 2.605- mile circuit.
Jenson Button qualified just before Trulli and snared third for BAR-Honda at 1:11.277. Button lost time with a bit too much understeer; "It felt like I had very low grip," he explained. A little worried about the tire situation, Button nonetheless found "long distance balance has been very good through practice today."
Giancarlo Fisichella, fourth out of the pits to take a timed lap earned fourth for the Renault team at 1:11.29, citing improved balance for his quickness this afternoon. "I feel more comfortable attacking the corners and the handling is much more consistent." Pleased with his performance after being forced to run early in the session, "We have worked a lot to get the car strong for the race and I am confident we can be competitive again tomorrow."
All the cheers from the stands couldn't help three-time USGP winner Michael Schumacher, who fell behind on all three sectors and will bring the Ferrari to the lights in fifth place after lapping at 1:11.369. The 7-tiome World Champion was "quite happy with my performance and, actually fifth is better than fourth on this grid as the other side is dirtier," he confirmed. "I am hopeful of finishing on podium," Schumacher said, musing that he believed he might have a better opportunity due to his fuel load.
Fisi's Renault teammate Fernando Alonso qualified just after Fisichella but still couldn't beat his speed, settling for sixth at 1:11.380. Like the balance of the Michelin runners Alonso is worried but "we are confident that what Michelin recommended now about pressures should solve the problem. Obviously we sacrifice a little bit of performance to be safe."
Rubens Barrichello's 1:11.431 lap was quite ragged, relegating the Brazilian to seventh grid spot, a far cry from his pole position here last June. One would think the Brazilian would be frustrated with his lap but he demurred: "We understand that we're not as fast as our competitors in qualifying but we're very fast in the race. I had some small problems under braking but apart from that the car was good," he said.
Takuma Sato looked strong in both his first and second sectors but fell behind in sector #3 and settled for eighth with a lap of 1:11.497 in the second BAR-Honda, admitting he struggled a little bit. "We completed two different setups this morning and unfortunately I had to change everything. It was the very first try on the setup so it was a bit difficult," Sato explained.
The Williams BMW team had great hopes for Mark Webber after his fifth place finish in Montreal but the Aussie managed 1:11.527, good for ninth grid slot. He thought the lap was "reasonable and I could not have got much more out of it." Having gone through similar tire problems in endurance racing at Le Mans, Webber feels secure Michelin "will find a good solution in order to guarantee safety and a good race for everyone."
There was a similar situation for Felipe Massa who finished fourth in Canada with the Sauber Petronas, but Massa ran 1:11.555 and will take tenth on the grid and is actually "pretty happy to be starting in the top ten. My lap was okay, no mistakes, but I was struggling just a little bit in the final sector as I lost some grip. We can fight for points from here," the Brazilian stated.
Second to take a flying lap (after Ricardo Zonta, subbing for Ralf Schumacher), Juan Pablo Montoya was easily off the pace with his McLaren and will line up 11th after turning 1:11.681. The Colombian knew his car was good after being quicker than his teammate in two sessions, but the penalty from Canada foisted an early qualifying slot upon him.
"You go out to qualify when the track is dirty, and pick up all the dirt and you're just done," Montoya declared. "I think we have a really fast race car but, from where I'm starting I'm pretty screwed, to be honest."
It was obvious that either the track slowed or the higher tire pressures mandated by Michelin caused many teams' setups to go astray, but that wasn't the case with Jacques Villeneuve, whose lap of 1:11.691 gave him 12th place. The former Indy 500 and F1 champion wasn't too dismayed by his lap 'but it wasn't quite as fast as I wanted. I guess I wasn't aggressive enough," Villeneuve said.
Returning to competition after more than six months as a tester, Ricardo Zonta was first to take a timed lap and his rust showed through with a tour of 1:11.754; perhaps he was being particularly careful in time trials, settling for 13th? "Those were certainly not the ideal circumstances for my first qualifying run in eight months. Going out first is hard because that's when the track is most slippery and I found myself sliding quite a lot." Still, Zonta is happy "to have another chance to race."
The Red Bull drivers' setups surely were marred by the change in tire pressures; Christian Klien starts 14th while David Coulthard ended up 16th. For Klien, the change in pressures "didn't affect things too much so I was quite happy. I think the higher tire pressure might result in some oversteer (during the race) so we have to find a solution for that."
His more experienced teammate "lost a little balance in the car since yesterday after altering tire pressure." Coulthard's lap wasn't going poorly until he got to the back straight entering turn 8. "I lost control of the back end and quite a lot of time. I've been prepared for a tricky weekend," and he's surely got a tricky weekend to deal with.
The meat in that Red Bull sandwich is Nick Heidfeld, the Williams BMW shoe lining up 15th. Not pleased with his lap one bit, the German found his car "was quite difficult to drive because there was very low grip. It was a lot better yesterday, but this morning we struggled and again the same thing happened in qualifying."
Tiago Monteiro was best of the Jordan drivers, the Portuguese taking 17th grid spot and noting his lap was "very good and clean so I am very happy as I pushed really hard to make a good time here."
Christian Albers took 18th in the first of the Minardi entries and found his lap "reasonable. We'll have to see what happens tomorrow with strategy and with the big story of the weekend concerning tires."
Narain Karthikeyan holds 19th in the second Jordan, finding the early going tough on a dusty track. Peter Friesacher is the caboose of the 20-car F1 grid in the second Minardi and thought his lap "not bad, even if there was a little bit of understeer."
As the FIA has eliminated any warmup for the Formula one cars this year, no one has any idea whether the Michelin teams' pressure adjustments and setup changes will aid or harm their chances once the 73-lap contest gets underway at 1PM EST.
Judging from driver comments, a paddock's worth of concern remains about the Michelin tire problem despite the fact that only one team was affected.
Michelin staff intend to study data provided by their teams throughout the evening as they wait for the different tire compound to be air-shipped from Clermont-Ferrand. "In terms of pure performance, it is clear that our tires are well suited to the Indianapolis circuit and it very gratifying to see four different Michelin chassis filling the first two rows of the grid," stated Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin motorsport director.
"Following yesterday's incidents, however, we still have work to complete before the start of the race for many reasons. Whatever happens," he said, "I can assure you that like the other participants in motorsport Michelin will always propose a product respecting the needs of total security and independent of any rules."
Despite trying to duplicate the incidents from Friday practice on many different occasions, Michelin have been unable to do so. "As yet we have not been able to understand the reason leading to yesterday's sudden tire-pressure drop on the two Toyotas," admitted Nick Shorrock, director of Michelin F1 activities.
"Using the latest data available we continue to direct our teams in the usage of our products so that drivers could participate safely in today's free practice and qualification sessions," Shorrock continued. The manufacturer said it will appeal to the FIA for a change of rubber in tomorrow's race should investigations prove the swap would make for safer competition, but certainly wants to be circumspect in making such suggestions.
Mandated amendments to setups between yesterday and today put foul to many pre-qualifying plans and could easily mean unusual characters at the front of the sixth annual US Grand Prix held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a difficult track to prepare for under the best of circumstances.