Scarlet cars just have the edge, as champion seeks home win
In the end, a Ferrari took pole position for the Spanish Grand Prix, rather as McLaren had expected, but the three-hundredths of a second gap was a pleasant surprise for the men from Woking who were anticipating a larger deficit.
Felipe Massa sits on pole again, and admitted that his first attempt contained far too many mistakes. But his final run, on Bridgestones medium (softer) rubber, yielded the Alonso-busting lap of 1m 21.421s.
The Spaniard was pretty pleased with his 1m 21.451s, which put him on the front row for his home race, but the big question is how much fuel he was running in comparison with his rivals. It may be that he is lighter than either of the Ferraris, and almost certainly he was the lighter McLaren on this occasion, since Lewis Hamilton seemed perfectly happy with his fourth fastest lap of 1m 21.785s.
"I believe that I have a strong race strategy, the Englishman said. Anything is possible from the second row and we have been quick throughout the weekend. I have started fourth on a few occasions now, so I have an idea of what to do. I'm really pleased with the balance of the car and the improvements the team has made since Bahrain.
Perhaps the least happy of the top four drivers was third-fastest Kimi Raikkonen, who lapped his Ferrari in 1m 21.723s. "It seems that taking third place in qualifying is now becoming a habit. It's not a bad position, but obviously you always hope to be in front of everyone, he said ruefully. His abiding problem was a hangover from practice, when he had too much oversteer over a single lap, especially in the second sector. He talked of being able to improve this for the race, without specifying which area of the car this could apply to without breaking the parc ferme rules. Possibly he was referring to starting tyre choice, or tyre pressures.
Both McLarens will start from the dirtier side of the track, but with the long haul to Turn One and the heavy braking that is necessary there it will likely have less of a disadvantage than at other circuits where the corner is closer to the start-line.
BMW Sauber have been pretty quick here all weekend, and Robert Kubica was very happy with his F1.07s fifth-fastest time of 1m 22.253s since it was still oversteering. He believes that this will be reduced in the race as the track rubbers up. Nick Heidfeld said his cars balance was good, and is happy to be starting in seventh place on the clean side of the grid, after a lap of 1m 22.389s, as his starts this year have been quick. Once again, the team was the third strongest, and is on target for another decent points haul.
As Ralf Schumacher complained of traffic and failed to get out of Q1, Jarno Trulli was Toyotas star with sixth-fastest lap in 1m 22.324s, despite being obliged by traffic to do the time on his second lap on the medium rubber. He suggested that the teams heavily revised new aerodynamic package was working well.
Toyotas performance rather upset Renaults renaissance, leaving Heikki Kovalainen eighth on 1m 22.568s and Giancarlo Fisichella 10th on 1m 22.881s. The Finn thought his R27 felt good straight away in Q1, and got through to Q3 despite a few scares with traffic. Fisichella, meanwhile, stayed on the hard rubber for the final part of Q3, explaining: I think it was a good choice because we have a good strategy for the race. He did not feel, however, that his afternoon was perfect as he fell behind a little when he thought he had a brake problem in Q1. Engineering chief Pat Symonds, ever the pragmatist, suggested that getting both cars in the top 10 was a small step in Renaults recovery.
Spain brought a welcome fillip for Red Bull, who built on the increase in speed that they were able to demonstrate in testing the previous week. Yet David Coulthard admitted that he was disappointed with his 1m 22.749s lap, which left him ninth as he believed the car to be quicker than that. Understeer on his new medium compound Bridgestones accounted for the lost lap time. If Coulthard was unhappy, however, team mate Mark Webber was deeply disgruntled with 19th place after a Q1 lap of 1m 23.398s. After driveshaft problems in the morning he suffered a hydraulic problem in qualifying.
Williams, too, were disappointed after the speed the FW29 has shown all weekend, to end up with Nico Rosbergs 11th-fastest time of 1m 21.968s. The German complained of oversteer, while team-mate Alex Wurz, 18th on 1m 22.769s, said: It was a bit of disaster, worse than a traffic jam on the M25 in London. People really slowed down on their in-laps and seemed to forget that other people were still around them doing quick laps. At the last chicane I actually nearly stopped because five cars were in front of me going so slowly which caused my tyre pressures to drop dramatically. He failed to make it through to Q2.
Twelfth and 14th places for Rubens Barrichello (1m 22.097s) and Jenson Button (1m 22.503s) left Honda celebrating its best qualifying performance of the season so far, a sign of the trouble they find themselves in. The Brazilian felt they had made some improvement, but the Englishman struggled with the pace over a single lap. He also admitted to a small error in Turn Six.
Super Aguri split the Hondas, courtesy of Takuma Satos 13th-fastest lap of 1m 22.115s, but to his chagrin he stopped on the track in Q2 with what was described as a fuel issue. Whether this concerned fuel feed or insufficient supply was not vouchsafed. Anthony Davidson backed his team mate strongly with 15th place, even though he didnt actually record a Q2 lap time after getting caught out by the wind in Turn Nine and spinning off.
Tonio Liuzzi proved to be the Toro Rosso pacemaker after Scott Speed, whod had the upper hand earlier in the day, was unable to get running at all in Q1. The Italian and the American still lacked the quickshift gearbox that Red Bull had for the first time, and were a specification behind on aero package. Liuzzis Q1 lap of 1m 22.508s was thus a good effort, especially since positions 13 to 16 - Trulli, Barrichello, Button and Liuzzi - were covered by five thousandths of a second! He was unable to run at all in Q2 due to undisclosed mechanical problems, while Speed was kept in the pits by a transmission problem. On my out lap, as I tried to change gear I got a neutral and the engine died and then as I started my flying lap, it happened again and I almost went off the track, he disclosed. It got worse and that was it. Despite the disappointments, both drivers felt the team had made some progress.
That was the general sentiment at Spyker too, where Adrian Sutil was 20th on 1m 23.811s and Christijan Albers 21st, 1m 23.990s. The former complained of oversteer initially, while like Wurz, the latter was troubled by traffic. That was the worst qualifying of my life, with traffic, he said.
The session really reflects where we are, said chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne. We need to find a second in the wind tunnel to be in the group ahead. The good thing, however, is that the group is very competitive and if you join it you can qualify in the top 10.