Felipe Massa led Ferrari's challenge in qualifying for the French Grand Prix and set top time of 1:15.043 to claim pole position. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen was third and in between them was the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, another front row for the...
Felipe Massa led Ferrari's challenge in qualifying for the French Grand Prix and set top time of 1:15.043 to claim pole position. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen was third and in between them was the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, another front row for the boy wonder. However, McLaren's hopes were badly dented by Fernando Alonso not setting a time in the last session due to a gearbox problem.
Despite predictions of possible rain showers it was dry for the start of the first 15 minute session, with the track temperature in the mid forties and the air in the mid twenties. Alonso had already started the day with brake problems in the morning practice and missed most of it, but it seemed those issues were resolved for qualifying.
The Renaults had a good morning practice and Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen were quickly out on track this afternoon. The Spykers of Adrian Sutil and Christijan Albers joined them, as well as David Coulthard and Mark Webber in the Red Bulls and the Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson.
The Spykers set the first times but were quickly replaced by Fisichella then Kovalainen, the latter clocking 1:16.054. The Williams pair of Alex Wurz and Nico Rosberg were on track, the Toyotas of Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli and the Hondas of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. Webber and Coulthard took fourth and fifth respectively.
Coulthard then went fastest, 1:15.970, followed by Kovalainen and Trulli in second and third. Hamilton put his McLaren to the top first time out, 1:14.805, and Schumacher was a full second behind in second place. Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso arrived in seventh and teammate mate Scott Speed went a few better for fourth.
The BMW Saubers of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica were late to go out but Heidfeld took second when he did, then he lost it immediately to Alonso. The Ferraris were last to arrive and Massa took the second slot followed by Raikkonen, who continued the trend and clocked second. All bar the top five -- Hamilton, Raikkonen, Massa, Alonso and Heidfeld -- went out for a last hot lap.
Kovalainen, Webber, Schumacher and Kubica all moved ahead of Heidfeld but he remained in the top 10. Speed was 11th but teammate Liuzzi was 17th and led the six to be dropped. He was followed by Wurz, Sato, Davidson, Albers and Sutil, who had some kind of problem with the car, although it probably didn't make any difference to his result.
There was an awful lot of traffic in the final few minutes so no doubt there will be some muttering from those who didn't make the second session. Sato, if you remember, already has a 10 place grid demotion penalty for overtaking under yellow flags at Indianapolis so he will start from the back row.
The second session was slow to get under way, over four minutes gone before anyone ventured out. Coulthard was the first to hit the track but appeared to suffer from gremlins and the Red Bull hitched and coughed its way back to the pits. Trulli was first to set a time but was quickly eclipsed by Schumacher then Hamilton, 1:14.795.
Raikkonen took second, followed by the two Renaults in third and fourth, then Massa nabbed second. There was very little between the top three, hundredths at most. The BMWs were late to run and Kubica took fourth and Heidfeld managed ninth. Alonso slotted into fifth, about quarter of a second down on Hamilton.
It was session over for Coulthard with a suspected oil pressure problem on the Red Bull. Again, the top five did not feel it was necessary to go for another lap but the rest gave it a last go. Heidfeld jumped back into the top 10, sixth, but it was no such luck for Schumacher, Button, Barrichello, Webber, Speed and, of course, Coulthard, the six to drop out.
The final 15 minute shoot out for pole began with the usual fuel burning period. The Ferraris led out, followed by the McLarens, the four it looked likely to be a battle between. However, Alonso only did one lap then ducked into the pits and was wheeled into the garage. Even if he got back out it would be tough to get a good grid spot with a heavy car.
McLaren told Hamilton on the radio that Alonso had a problem but to keep going. Hamilton was second behind Raikkonen at the time, the Finn's best being 1:16.173, but they were not yet into the serious flying lap area. Trulli was first in for a tyre change and Alonso was still sitting in the car as mechanics worked on it.
Raikkonen followed Trulli and the rest began to do likewise. With five minutes to go Alonso gave up and got out of the McLaren -- usually the Spaniard goes well in France but this weekend is proving troublesome. Back on track Hamilton, Raikkonen and Massa were scorching round together, with Massa lighting up purple fastest sectors in his wake.
Massa came out on top, 1:15.043, with Hamilton a tenth behind and Raikkonen about the same gap in third. The BMWs were fourth and fifth, Kubica leading Heidfeld, and everyone pitted and went back out for a last ditch effort. Raikkonen was the first to go for it, followed by Hamilton, and neither of them were up on Massa's previous time in the first sector.
Hamilton was quicker in the middle but Raikkonen wasn't and stayed third. Hamilton likewise stayed second, just a few hundredths off Massa and Massa didn't need to do anything to keep pole position. A good job by the Brazilian and with Raikkonen third it looks like Ferrari could give Hamilton a harder time in the race than they have done recently.
"It was definitely great for us to be back and fighting," said Massa. "If you look at what's happened in the last races and if you look at the car we had in Silverstone (testing) and also the car we found here today, I would not say we are completely in front of our competitors but at least we are back and fighting so that's really encouraging and I'm very happy to start again on pole position. "
Raikkonen was satisfied but, naturally, would have preferred to be higher. "We had the car but it wasn't a perfect lap," he said. "I think the race will be different tomorrow. You never know when the others are stopping so I think we had a good car." On the possibility of rain on Sunday he added: "It will make it much more complicated for everybody, for sure, more interesting, probably... We wait and see what happens tomorrow."
Once again it was a matter of hundredths at the top and Hamilton was only fractionally behind Massa. But Alonso's trouble was a bit of a surprise, considering how reliable McLaren has been so far this season. Initially the team thought it might be an engine issue but after qualifying it was confirmed to be the gearbox.
Hamilton was happy to be on the front row: "The car was pretty sweet for the qualifying session. I had the car for pole and I lost a bit of time on turn 15. I was about a tenth and a half up, so I had it there but it would have been a mega lap. I lost a bit of time but that's the way the game goes but I'm very very happy. We're on the front row and I believe that we have a good strategy for tomorrow, so we will be very strong."
Kubica bounced back in final style after his Canada accident and scored his best grid slot so far with fourth. Teammate Heidfeld was perhaps a little off the pace in seventh but is at least happy that the back pain he experience on Friday didn't resurface. Renault continued to show well with Fisichella fifth and Kovalainen sixth.
Trulli finished eighth and Rosberg ninth, while Alonso, presuming it was the gearbox and not an engine problem, will start 10th. It was quite an interesting session but, as usual, it was really only between Ferrari and McLaren with the rest muddling along behind. Despite Hamilton's fine efforts, it still looks like Ferrari has the edge this weekend.
That's not a bad thing because it's about time we had a fight at the front again instead of just the McLarens squabbling between themselves. Alonso is going to have a hard job on Sunday but Magny Cours does lend itself to some interesting pit stop strategies. Final top ten classification: Massa, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Kubica, Fisichella, Kovalainen, Heidfeld, Trulli, Rosberg, Alonso.