McLaren's Fernando Alonso has been on a roll so far this weekend and he kept it going to pole position in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. His best time of 1:21.997 was set on his penultimate lap at the end of the third session, while...
McLaren's Fernando Alonso has been on a roll so far this weekend and he kept it going to pole position in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. His best time of 1:21.997 was set on his penultimate lap at the end of the third session, while teammate Lewis Hamilton made it an all McLaren front row with second. Ferrari's Felipe Massa was third and BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld put in a late charge to snatch fourth from Kimi Raikkonen.
The conditions were fine and warm at the start of the first 15 minute session with the track temperature in the high thirties. Raikkonen had a heavy crash in the morning practice; he was unharmed but the Ferrari was badly damaged and he had to swap to the spare for qualifying. Luckily his race engine was intact and could also be swapped to the spare car so he doesn't get any penalty.
Spyker's Adrian Sutil and Sakon Yamamoto and Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel were first out on track, quickly followed by Raikkonen. The Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher were also early arrivals, then Red Bull's Mark Webber. Vettel was the initial leader, 1:24.186, while the second Red Bull of David Coulthard and Anthony Davidson's Super Aguri joined the action.
Raikkonen was scorching around and started with a 1:22.673, so no sign of hesitation from the Finn. Trulli slotted into second and others were still coming out, the Renaults of Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen and Nico Rosberg's Williams the next to appear. Yamamoto spun and wiped his front wing off on the barrier but managed to get back to the pits. Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso was on track and Takuma Sato's Super Aguri was briefly off it.
Webber jumped up to second and Sato to third then Kovalainen took the second spot. Fisichella posted fourth and Rosberg sixth but the Honda of Rubens Barrichello then took it. Teammate Jenson Button was ninth and Hamilton's McLaren went straight to the top on his first flyer, 1:21.956. The second Williams of Alex Wurz took ninth and BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica third.
Heidfeld was a relatively low 13th and Alonso and Massa were last to set a time, 1:21.718 for Alonso and third for Massa. Heidfeld improved to sixth so yet again it was McLaren, Ferrari and BMW up front. Yamamoto got back out after his front wing change but it didn't move him off the back row. Coulthard was a late retiree when the Red Bull spun due to a possible gearbox problem.
Sato in 17th led the six to be dropped and Schumacher once again didn't make the grade, 18th. Liuzzi was 19th, Coulthard 20th after his stoppage and Sutil and Yamamoto the backmarkers. Alonso stayed at the top from Hamilton, Massa and Raikkonen so nothing new there. After the first session it looked like Ferrari was going to have a very hard job to fight McLaren for the front row.
It was a slow start to the second session, a few minutes gone by before Trulli headed out. Webber joined him and with 10 minutes to go the action got under way again. Trulli clocked 1:23.381 and Vettel took second but the times changed very quickly. Webber went top, then Barrichello then Massa, 1:21.993, and Hamilton was scorching around behind. 1:21.746 for the McLaren man.
Raikkonen slotted into third and Rosberg was fourth. Kovalainen followed on in fifth but the BMWs and Alonso were still to go. Heidfeld took fourth and Alonso had very quick first and last sectors to post 1:21.356, four tenths up on Hamilton. Kubica put his BMW fifth so the top three teams were back at the front again. There was time for a last run for all bar the top six, who didn't feel it was necessary.
It promised to be a very tough fight to get into the top 10 for the midfield teams; Barrichello and Webber scraped in but immediately got punted out again as Trulli, Button and Kovalainen made it stick for eighth, ninth and 10th. Barrichello had a trip through the gravel and Fisichella had to avoid the Honda as it got back on track, which cost him time and he ended up down in 15th.
Webber just missed out in 11th, as did Barrichello 12th, less than a tenth from the top 10. Wurz was 13th, Davidson a good 14th for Super Aguri, Fisichella 15th and Vettel 16th. Alonso appeared to be on a mission at the top, consistently a couple of tenths up on Hamilton and favourite for pole heading into the final session -- but could he stay in front until the end of the last 15 minutes?
Hamilton led the pack out for the fuel burning stage, followed by the Ferraris. Alonso kept well away from his teammate, towards the back of the queue, and Honda was rather pleased to have Button in the pole shootout. Hamilton, Massa and Heidfeld were at the top of the time sheet early on but as usual there was a little way to go before anyone went in for tyres and set about a serious lap.
Trulli was the first in to the pits and the rest soon followed suit. In the first wave of hot laps Trulli posted sixth while Hamilton and Massa were trading fastest sectors. Massa went to the top but Hamilton's 1:22.360 was half a second up. Raikkonen took third and the BMWs slotted into fourth and fifth, Heidfeld ahead of Kubica. All eyes were on Alonso and he set purple fastest sectors all the way for 1:21.997.
Time for the final charge and it was hard to imagine the end result would be much different. Massa was up on his own best time but it was not enough to elevate him from third. Raikkonen likewise stayed fourth and Hamilton followed suit to remain second. Heidfeld put a fly in Ferrari's ointment as he grabbed fourth from Raikkonen, while Alonso backed off his lap as he already knew he was on pole.
The gap between Alonso and Hamilton was just four one hundredths but it's pretty much guaranteed that it would have been more if Alonso had stayed on a hot lap at the end. The Spaniard has been very fast and focused all weekend and generally a few tenths up on Hamilton so one would have to think he's favourite of the pair. But Hamilton won't back down so it will be interesting to see how it plays out on Sunday.
"It is great to get pole position; I have been doing some good qualifying laps at the last races but they have not always come together in the final session like it did today," said Alonso, who was last on pole in Monaco (he lost it in Hungary due to a penalty). "The car has been working really well all weekend and we already had a good idea that we would be fast from the test."
Hamilton was satisfied enough with second. "It was a good battle with Fernando throughout qualifying," he commented. "My first timed lap wasn't the best, but I was able to improve on it for my final attempt. The result today shows just how hard everyone at McLaren and Mercedes-Benz has been working. We have all put our heads together and this has resulted in us locking out the front row."
Although Ferrari put in a good early show in Friday's first practice, the reds have not quite been on McLaren's form since. But who will have the better race pace? As always we will have to wait and see how the strategies play out and who gets the better out of the tyres. Generally there's about as much between Massa and Raikkonen as there is between Alonso and Hamilton but Massa's better grid spot should count.
"I think third place was the best I could do this afternoon," said Massa. "We lacked a bit of speed to fight the McLarens for the front row but we know we are competitive in race trim, so we can be confident about tomorrow's race. The car is not bad in terms of balance, although it is a bit difficult under braking. I hope I get a good start and then play a good hand in a race that will be very tough."
Heidfeld's late run to fourth could compound Raikkonen's woes of this weekend. First hydraulic problems on Friday, then the big crash this morning and now a BMW in front of him on the grid; Monza has not been kind to the Finn so far. Not that Heidfeld will be commiserating -- BMW is likely to have run him light to get that spot but Heidfeld can be adept at keeping faster cars behind him in the race.
Kubica finished sixth, which is more or less average for the Pole, and Kovalainen and Rosberg did another solid job apiece with seventh and eighth. Trulli was ninth and reportedly Button, 10th, wasn't expecting to get into Q3 and didn't have any soft tyres left. Realistically he probably wouldn't have been much higher up anyway but it was a genuine break into the top 10 so he can be pleased with that.
Although the problems drivers have had with overtaking this season won't go away just because Monza is a very quick, we can perhaps expect some excitement at this unpredictable circuit. But let's hope it's a good, clean race because F1 really doesn't need any more controversies at the moment. Final top ten classification: Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Heidfeld, Raikkonen, Kubica, Kovalainen, Rosberg, Trulli, Button.