Final qualifying review - weather shuffles grid 11 Oct 2003
Kimi Raikkonen eighth, Michael Schumacher 14th, Ralf Schumacher 19th, Jarno Trulli 20th. You didn't have to be a genius to figure from this that the weather played a part in final qualifying here this afternoon.
After drizzle during the 15-minute pre-qualifying warm-up, qualifying itself was initially run on a dry track. Then it began to drizzle again as Nick Heidfeld, running as the 11th man out, started his out lap. By that point Nicolas Kiesa, Jos Verstappen, Giancarlo Fisichella, Ralph Firman and Jenson Button had all had their turn setting pole position. Justin Wilson was the first man not to beat his predecessor. Then came the two Toyotas, Cristiano da Matta first. He set the quickest time of 1m 32.419s, and Olivier Panis then failed to beat that with 1m 32.862s.
Juan Pablo Montoya ran two cars after Heidfeld, and did the best he could in slippery circumstances. 1m 32.412s was just sufficient to pip da Matta, and the Colombian was reasonably happy with that. But then came Rubens Barrichello, who startled everyone with a lap of 1m 31.713s. The confident belief of Ferrari's rivals is that the Brazilian was running with a lighter fuel load than most. His effort would be good enough for the pole.
"That was the best lap I have ever done at Suzuka," Barrichello beamed. "I'm happy to be on pole but obviously the rain helped a bit. If I win I can help Michael to win the title and Ferrari to win the constructors' championship."
After he had struggled in morning practice Barrichello had reverted to his Friday set-up, and was much happier with it. "That was a super job by Rubens as the circuit conditions were already difficult," said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. "We have got a different Bridgestone dry tyre here compared to Indianapolis and it's a relief to see it works much better in damp conditions."
By the time Fernando Alonso went out to record 1m 33.044s for Renault the conditions were deteriorating. Raikkonen managed only 1m 33.272s. David Coulthard, in the spare McLaren after Raikkonen took over his race car for the rest of the day after damaging his own too badly to repair in the morning, had the satisfaction of beating his team mate with 1m 33.137s. It was one of the Scot's best performances of the season.
"It could have been worse," he said. "The cars are all different and the spare had much more front end than I like. The conditions were changing and seventh isn't bad given the circumstances of my day. After the warm-up the conditions were changing so much we decided it was best not to change the set-up at all." His only problem was when a chassis access panel flew off the car as the exited the Spoon Curve.
Raikkonen probably realised that his championship chances had begun to wilt even further after his morning shunt, and eighth on the grid won't do him any favour tomorrow. "We are not in a good position to fight for the championship," he acknowledged, "but it's better than it could have been. You never know what will happen tomorrow, and the weather could play a big part."
After the McLarens ran the conditions changed for the worst. On Michael Schumacher's run the track was really slippery and the champion struggled. "It could have been worse," he shrugged. "If the result stays like our grid positions, we have won both championships. It will be pretty difficult for Kimi to win from his position. On my lap the car was very difficult to drive under the conditions. I went too optimistically into 130R and got into a little slide, and after that all my optimism went."
Things were even worse for his brother, who slithered as far as the chicane and then spun. He then went straight into the pits. Jarno Trulli, the last man out, did a slow out lap and also pitted.
"This is really a shame," Schumacher Jnr said. "I've been strong in almost all the sessions and the rain destroyed everything. I aborted the lap to be open to different strategies tomorrow. Maybe I can score a few points."
"It's a mixed grid which will give us an interesting race," said Williams chief operations engineer Sam Michael. "As it is now it will be difficult to win the constructors' championship. Ralf came straight into pits to save one lap of fuel, and we will probably start from the back of the grid rather than the pit lane tomorrow. We didn't expect Rubens' lap time, so maybe he has less fuel on board."
While he was thinking that, Ross Brawn was saying: "Michael's situation is pretty difficult as he has to stay out of trouble, and we cannot exclude that Kimi can win from P8 on the grid."
"The grid promises a very interesting race for the constructors' championship," Montoya said. "Both Williams and Ferrari have a car at the front and one at the back."
With Barrichello, Montoya, da Matta, Panis, Alonso and Webber as the top six, followed by Coulthard, Raikkonen, Button and Wilson, the grid has an unusual look. Heidfeld did a good job for 11th, but Frentzen spoiled his lap by getting hung up on the kerb after pushing a fraction too hard at Degner Two. Takuma Sato, however, simply overdrove his BAR on the way to 13th, and will start alongside the world champion.
One of the happiest teams was Jaguar, with both cars in the top 10. "It was a really jammy result," said Mark Webber, who had expected to be 11th at best."
"It was a very good performance from Justin, and with Mark we sort of expect that nowadays," said team principal Tony Purnell, adding tongue-in-cheek: "The most impressive thing was the way in which we manipulated the weather in our favour!"
Webber summarised everyone's feelings best after an unusual afternoon, when he observed: "We'll have to see what happens when we open the curtains tomorrow morning."
Click here for the qualifying results in full.