Saturday qualifying review 28 Jun 2003
When everything was to play for here at the Nurburgring this afternoon, and Michael Schumacher's fans were already celebrating, Kimi Raikkonen put all memories of his Spanish and Canadian qualifying mistakes out of his mind and rose to the occasion to score his first-ever Formula One pole position.
In another gripping qualifying session, in which rain did not, after all, play its anticipated part, eight drivers set the fastest time. First there was Jacques Villeneuve, whose 1m 34.596s eventually left him 17th. Then came Cristiano da Matta, happy with a Toyota that no longer understeered as much as it had in the morning, with a sharper 1m 32.949s. Team mate Olivier Panis reduced that to 1m 32.350s, and for a long time that resisted all comers.
"Obviously I am really happy with seventh place a good position to start tomorrow," he said later. "Our target has always been to get two cars in the top 10 and I think I would have qualified even better if it had not been for the rain yesterday."
It wasn't until Jarno Trulli went out for Renault that Panis was overcome, Trulli lapping in 1m 31.976s to establish dominance over team mate Fernando Alonso, who had earlier done 1m 32.424s. Both Renault drivers felt they had improved the handling of their cars, and Trulli said: "I now believe that we are in a good position to fight for points tomorrow."
However, Renault could not withstand the onslaught of the big guns, and neither could Toyota. First it was Rubens Barrichello, who pushed his Ferrari to 1m 31.780s. But then Ralf Schumacher challenged for his third consecutive pole position with 1m 31.619s. Juan Pablo Montoya in the second Williams just failed to match this with 1m 31.765s, but for a short while team engineer Sam Michael's prediction of a white and blue front row looked like it may come true.
But then came Michael Schumacher, and his 1m 31.555s delighted his countrymen and triggered premature ignition of celebratory fireworks even as Raikkonen was going into his qualifying lap. This time the Finn kept his nerve, and the result was 1m 31.523s.
"Kimi did a fantastic lap," said managing director Martin Whitmarsh. "He did a great job yesterday and it was important to maintain that today. He was under a lot of pressure and he did the job. Michelin did a great job. The tyres are good over one lap and they will hold up well in the race as well and we have a good race strategy."
Whitmarsh was disappointed to see Coulthard only ninth, however, and said: "David frankly has to be up there more, and is going to be reflecting on his confidence level. He did a conservative lap yesterday and maybe that was the thing to do, but you can't be conservative and get to the front. It is too competitive for that."
Schumacher put a brave face on things, but admitted he has concerns for the start of the race. "We have shown that we are competitive here," he said. "Yesterday the Michelin runners benefited from a softer compound that they could not use today and so today gave the true picture. Second on the grid is not ideal because it is off the line and I am a bit worried by that."
Barrichello, meanwhile, admitted that he lost time in the second sector. "We are all so close together that little mistakes can make a big difference," he said
Jaguar expected to struggle in qualifying, and came away with Webber 11th and Pizzonia 16th. Jenson Button again out-qualified his team mate but admitted to a very close shave again with the chicane bollards (one of which tore off his front wing yesterday), and the Jordans were again evenly matched.
The biggest dramas befell Sauber, however. Both cars suffered engine failures in the warm-up, and as Frentzen jumped into the understeering spare car, the mechanics changed Heidfeld's engine in just 25 minutes, only to have a downshift problem push the young German wide and into a spin in the first corner. He will start the race from last place.
It appears that most of the front runners are planning relatively long first stints in two-stop strategies. Rubens Barrichello's comment was illuminating when he said: "With the fuel load I have, I was playing it safe."
The stage is set for another highly competitive race.