A three way fight between Ferrari, McLaren and Williams in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix saw Michael Schumacher claim pole position by four tenths of a second from team mate Rubens Barrichello. The top time was always within Michael's...
A three way fight between Ferrari, McLaren and Williams in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix saw Michael Schumacher claim pole position by four tenths of a second from team mate Rubens Barrichello. The top time was always within Michael's grasp but the first three rows of the grid were undecided until the final minutes.
The session was divided into two sections due to the high speed crash of Toyota's Allan McNish. The Scot hit the barrier at the 130R corner and the car went straight through the armco backwards. McNish was shaken but not seriously hurt although it remains to be seen if he will race tomorrow. The session was red flagged for over an hour while the damage to the barrier was repaired.
Track temperature was around 30C at the Suzuka circuit, which has seen slight changes at the Dunlop curve. What used to be a 150mph uphill left-hander is now two turns separated by a short straight. In the earlier stint, Alex Yoong was first to set a time followed by Jacques Villeneuve and McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen took the first competitive provisional pole with a 1.32:699.
Team mate David Coulthard was quickly into second fastest while the Williams chased up behind, Juan Pablo Montoya displacing Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher third. The Ferraris immediately took over the top when Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello ventured out, Michael claiming the faster time of 1:31.825 -- six tenths of a second faster than last year's pole position, and his fiftieth career pole. Montoya closed up to second before the delay set in.
After the re-start Michael improved by another few tenths while Barrichello and the McLarens and Williams' tussled for position. The Brazilian claimed second from Coulthard and Raikkonen respectively, while Ralf Schumacher and Montoya were relegated to fifth and sixth.
Honda were running a new qualifying engine and the Jordans did well. Takuma Sato beat Giancarlo Fisichella to seventh in the final minutes, a great result for Sato in front of his home crowd. The similarly powered BARs had a mixed result: Olivier Panis took to the spare car after stalling at the pit lane exit but it couldn't get him higher than sixteenth. Villeneuve did better, jumping up to ninth.
Jarno Trulli was up to sixth before the red flags and Renault remained fairly stable after the interval, Jenson Button getting ahead of Trulli in tenth, the Italian just behind. Sauber had a reasonable time initially, both cars in the top ten before the session was halted, but dropping back afterwards. Nick Heidfeld was the better of the two in twelfth, Felipe Massa fifteenth. The remaining Toyota of Mika Salo was thirteenth.
Jaguar's Eddie Irvine suffered an engine failure, bringing out the yellow flags, and it was too late in the session for the team to prepare the spare. The Irishman finished fourteenth and Pedro de la Rosa a dismal seventeenth; Jaguar's recent improvement seems to have been fleeting. Minardi bought up the rear as usual, Mark Webber ahead of Alex Yoong.
Aside from McNish's crash, which was an excitement we really could have done without, it was an interesting session. It was a close battle at the front and although Michael was never under any real threat, the fight behind him was a good one. Bridgestone and Michelin were evenly matched with five apiece in the top ten. If the Williams and McLarens can keep the pace in tomorrow's race, the finale of the season could provide some entertainment.
Final top six classification: M. Schumacher, Barrichello, Coulthard, Raikkonen, R. Schumacher, Montoya.