Saturday qualifying review - Alonso on pole 23 Aug 2003
Both Fernando Alonso and test driver Allan McNish predicted yesterday that a Renault R23 would start the Hungarian Grand Prix from pole position, and this afternoon the Spaniard justified the expectation by pipping favourite Ralf Schumacher to the optimum starting slot.
"It's a great feeling to get my second pole," Alonso said. "Our car has been competitive since the start of the weekend, and I don't see any reason why that should change tomorrow!"
Schumacher Jnr admitted that he was slightly perplexed by the turn of events, especially after he had set a very quick first sector time, half a second quicker than anyone else, only to see the advantage more than disappear in the ensuing two. "It was a very good result but unfortunately I am starting on the wrong side of the track," the German said. "After my very good first sector time I was really surprised to lose so much in the other sectors. I thought it was a clean lap without any mistakes."
Williams team mate Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth and will thus line up behind Schumacher, and he was happier, boosted by the misfortune of title rival Michael Schumacher, who was eighth. "I am satisfied because there are a lot of cars between Michael and I," the Colombian beamed. "After I saw his lap time I admit that I took it a bit easier when I went out because I knew the conditions weren't that good."
All weekend the track has been very dirty, especially off-line, and a breeze continued to blow dust on to the surface throughout qualifying. "It wasn't great," Montoya added, "but compared to last year, I've done really well."
There was a surprise for both Williams pilots, in the form of Mark Webber who regained the form he had shown at Interlagos to take third spot on 1m 22.027s. And that was in a Jaguar that the Australian claimed was giving away some qualifying set-up in order to be well balanced for racing conditions. It was a great lap from the Antipodean, who admitted: "I don't want to do that lap again, it was right on the edge! I don't think I could have got any more out of the car." But for a dusty exit to Turn 11 he might even have made the front row.
"That was an excellent performance," said Jaguar's chief engineer Dr Mark Gillan. "We were third on the grid in Brazil, and on high downforce circuits the car is pretty decent."
That all left only fifth place for Ferrari, and it was Rubens Barrichello who took it. The Brazilian's lap looked great until the closing stages, when evident understeer killed his grip. "Until three corners from the end it was a perfect lap," he said, "but the last three are the crucial ones. It was difficult to find a set-up and I had too much understeer and that's where I lost my time. But fifth is better than fourth because of the clean line."
Alongside him on the third row is Jarno Trulli, who many had expected to take pole after Alonso's performance. But the Italian over-drove and made too many errors, limiting himself to a best of 1m 22.610s. Nevertheless, David Coulthard for one believes that the Italian, who sometimes struggles to maintain a consistent race pace, could hold the key tomorrow if he holds off his immediate challengers, Kimi Raikkonen and Schumacher Snr who were seventh and eighth respectively. Raikkonen lost time this morning with an engine failure and had ground to make up, but spoiled his lap with a dirty exit to Turn 11. Schumacher, meanwhile, was simply puzzled. He had been fastest ahead of Alonso in the pre-session warm-up, and 1m 22.210s, but when it came to the real thing he couldn't better 1m 22.755s after the conditions changed slightly.
"Everything was fine in the warm-up and I cannot really explain my lap time," he said. "I have a lot of work to do in the race."
Ninth place left Coulthard feeling "reasonably optimistic" for the race, and 10th place did the same thing for Olivier Panis. "We still have a well balanced car that just lacks grip," the Frenchman said, "but we knew that of the remaining four tracks on the calendar this would be the toughest for us, so achieving our pre-race target for a top 10 qualifying position is a good start."
Nick Heidfeld further endorsed Sauber's recent technical improvements with 11th place despite a mistake in Turn Two, but Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the second car made a bigger error on a heavier fuel load and ended up only 17th. They were separated by Justin Wilson, who was relatively pleased with 12th fastest time of 1m 23.660s while trying to ignore team mate Webber's blistering speed; Sauber-bound Giancarlo Fisichella who muscled 1m 23.726s from his Jordan Ford; Jenson Button, who admitted to making mistakes that created too much oversteer exiting the first corner; Cristiano da Matta who said he was cautious after spinning in the morning and again in the warm-up; and Jacques Villeneuve, who fought his BAR too hard.
Jos Verstappen brought a smile to Paul Stoddart's face with 18th slot, the Dutchman's class and experience showing through, while Nicolas Kiesa had to be content with 20th place as Zsolt Baumgartner took the indisposed Ralph Firman's Jordan to 19th slot for his Grand Prix debut.
"I've got mixed feelings getting the drive after what happened to Ralph," the Hungarian F3000 racer confessed. "I had hoped to be ahead of both Minardis, but I'm not that far off Jos. It's a great opportunity, and for me the main thing was not to make any mistakes." In the circumstances, as first man out on a very dirty track, that would have been all too easy.
Without question it's going to be a very tough race tomorrow, with tyre wear and strategy playing even more crucial roles than usual. Hold tight for many teams to adopt three-stop race plans.