Final qualifying review - Austria 17 May 2003
"I'm still wondering why I didn't spin at Remus!" Michael Schumacher admitted, after narrowly securing pole position for the Austrian Grand Prix. "I felt the car go sideways there, but surprisingly I didn't actually lose much time."
In a session notable for some unfamiliar faces in unusual places, the world champion just eased out Kimi Raikkonen, with a lap of 1m 09.150s to the Finn's 1m 09.189s.
"We were four-thousandths of a second away from being very happy," admitted McLaren managing director, Martin Whitmarsh. "Kimi did a fantastic job to be on the front row."
Behind them, radical set-up changes since Friday transformed Williams into a major contender, and Juan Pablo Montoya locked up third slot with what he described as a "conservative" run.
With Ralf Schumacher having to run first after his Friday spin, finding his FW25 nervous and making a mistake in Turn 1; David Coulthard making a couple of expensive errors in the McLaren; and Rubens Barrichello complaining that his front Bridgestones were graining by the end of the lap, it was Sauber's Nick Heidfeld who joined Montoya on row two.
The German switched to the T-car after the warm-up, and though it was set up exactly the same as his race car, its behaviour was transformed and he found a second. He was obviously running a lighter fuel load than Frentzen, but not so much lighter than those of his immediate rivals, according to team insiders.
Frentzen was still unhappy with his car's balance in the warm-up, when he picked up a puncture in the left front tyre, so the team opted for a conservative qualifying and race strategy with more fuel than Heidfeld.
Considering that, like Imola, the A1-Ring was expected to be Renault's bogey circuit, Flavio Briatore was optimistic about Jarno Trulli's sixth slot on the grid (1m 09.890s). However, Fernando Alonso blotted his copybook by pushing too hard and running wide in Turn 5. It ruined his lap and he trundled through the gravel to a best time of 1m 20.113s, leaving only Minardi's Jos Verstappen behind him on the grid.
Despite Friday's strong performance, and Saturday morning's speed, BAR came away with only seventh and 12th positions on the grid, courtesy of Jenson Button and Jacques Villeneuve. A twitch going into Remus kept Button's time down to 1m 09.935s, while Villeneuve made errors in Turn 1 and Turn 9 for an untidy 1m 10.618s.
At Jaguar it was Webber who did likewise, running wide in Turn 1 as his R4's Friday poise remained absent. He also got Turn 9 wrong, leaving him an unhappy 17th on 1m 11.662s. That left Antonio Pizzonia to give his best performance to date with a smooth run to eighth on the grid, in 1m 10.045s, to his obvious delight. "I think I am beginning to turn the corner," the Brazilian said with a big smile.
Jordan duly achieved their aim of a top 10 place, with Giancarlo Fisichella on 1m 10.105s for ninth spot. "Without a mistake in the last corner I think I could have been eighth," the Italian admitted, "but I'm optimistic about tomorrow."
Team mate Ralph Firman wound up 16th with 1m 11.505s after understeer hurt his time on the second part of the lap.
Toyota were philosophical about 11th place for Olivier Panis (1m 10.402s) and 13th for Cristiano da Matta (1m 10.834s). "We were still suffering the fallout from Friday's problems, so in the circumstances we should be satisfied," said chief designer Gustav Brunner. "Since we went out so early for qualifying, we actually expected to be lower down the grid."
Minardi had a disappointing afternoon. Justin Wilson got into a slide in the final corner and had to back off so much that his lap time stretched to 1m 14.508s, leaving only Alonso and team mate Verstappen behind him. The Dutchman's Minardi stopped after his gearbox failed early on in his lap.
Schumacher says his Ferrari was "perfectly balanced"; Whitmarsh says that McLaren believe they have a very competitive race strategy; and Montoya says he could do consistent 1m 09.3s laps without problem and that Williams have a great race set-up. With Barrichello, Coulthard and Alonso having to fight their way forward, the Austrian Grand Prix might just be the best race so far in 2003.