Final qualifying review - Williams unbeatable 02 Aug 2003
As expected in the searing 49 degree track temperature at Hockenheim this afternoon, Williams drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher locked up the front row of the grid for tomorrow's German Grand Prix. But the performance of Ferrari, particularly Rubens Barrichello, who was third, suggests that the red cars should not be discounted in the race.
Taking into account the six degree higher temperature and the need to run a reasonable fuel load, it was no surprise that lap times did not approach yesterday's 1m 14s laps from the Williams duo.
The session opened with a 1m 19.174s lap from rookie Nicolas Kiesa, the value of which only became properly apparent when team mate Jos Verstappen lapped the sister Minardi in 1m 19.023s. The Dane could thus be satisfied with his performance.
In between, Jacques Villeneuve's 1m 17.090s run for BAR (which would leave him 13th overall), set the mark for the Bridgestone runners. Running a light fuel load, Giancarlo Fisichella reduced that to 1m 16.831s to set the pace temporarily for Jordan, but Ralph Firman could only manage 1m 18.341s. The times left them 12th and 18th.
The two Sauber drivers were separated by four-tenths of a second, Heinz-Harald Frentzen on 1m 17.169s and Nick Heidfeld on 1m 17.557s, but where the older German was happy, the younger was again disappointed with his car's balance. They qualified 14th and 15th respectively. Jenson Button was also aghast at the change in his BAR between the morning and qualifying. "We did nothing to it," the Englishman said, "but the change in track conditions made it oversteer horribly." He will start 17th, after lapping in 1m 18.085s.
Cristiano da Matta sliced down to 1m 16.550s to usurp Fisichella, but later admitted to great annoyance with himself after very nearly spinning as he crossed the line. He got the left rear wheel in the dirt and only just held a tank-slapper slide. "Without that I think I could have been half a second faster," the Brazilian said. His time would remain good enough for ninth.
David Coulthard, out in the spare McLaren MP4/17D after his morning shunt in the stadium, just failed to beat da Matta with 1m 16.666s. It was an error-free lap, but the Scot complained that the car did not handle as well in the low-speed corners as his race car had. Almost immediately Olivier Panis lapped in 1m 16.034s to take provisional pole. "We are working well together and that is what is letting us make good progress," the Frenchman said of his relationship with da Matta. "The car was even better than this morning, and seventh and ninth places equals our joint-best qualifying performance from Canada."
The big question was whether Michael Schumacher, still running Bridgestone's harder tyre, could displace the red and white cars. The champion was quicker in the first sector but then dropped behind in the second before rallying dramatically in the third. His lap of 1m 15.898s was sufficient to push him ahead, but he admitted: "It wasn't my best qualifying run ever. The car wasn't perfect."
On his softer tyres Rubens Barrichello had no trouble beating his team mate's time with a 1m 15.488s, and suddenly Ferrari was looking strong again. But was it strong enough?
After his great performance yesterday Jaguar's Justin Wilson went out hoping for a lot better than the 1m 18.021s lap that would leave him only 16th, admitting that he over-drove an ill-balanced car in the second and third sectors. "I just pushed a bit too hard and had understeer as a result. It's just a matter of learning more about the car," he said philosophically.
Team mate Mark Webber pushed hard enough to use all the road and more in Turn One and Turn 16, but couldn't better 1m 16.775s for 11th. That stymied Wilson's avowed hope of qualifying within a second of him, and the Australian added: "It was mega until the second to last corner. I asked too much of the rear end and it didn't like it. I guess I lost something like three-tenths."
When the remaining title contenders came out, Kimi Raikkonen was the first to spoil Ferrari's hopes of an all-red front row. The Finn lapped in 1m 15.874s, but echoed Michael Schumacher when he said: "It wasn't my best qualifying performance ever."
Next up were the Renaults of Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli. The Spaniard responded with 1m 16.483s for eighth overall, struggling with some undisclosed mechanical problems, but again the Italian rose to the occasion with a super 1m 15.679s lap which would be good enough for fourth.
The final shoot-out was thus between the Williams drivers, just as everyone had expected. Montoya was the first to go and sped round in 1m 15.167s. On his run Schumacher went fastest in the first and second sectors and seemed well on target to take pole, only to lose it all in the final sector. His 1m 15.185s was not quite enough.
"It's no surprise, we are so strong aerodynamically," Montoya said cheerfully afterwards. "And we have a tyre advantage and are finding the right set up more quickly. We can definitely fight for the win tomorrow."
With Michael Schumacher only sixth fastest, brother Ralf should have been more optimistic, but instead was a little cautious. "I lost pole in the last three corners when I picked up a little understeer," he said. "And I don't think we should underestimate Ferrari for the race."
On race pace the Bridgestone-tyred red cars have been very consistent all weekend. But Williams engineer Sam Michael said: "We have also been pretty good in performance and durability terms, especially in practice this morning."
The stage is set for another unpredictable, but close-fought Grand Prix, for which temperatures in the thirties are forecast.
For the qualifying results in full click here