Final qualifying review - Schumacher on pole 13 Sep 2003
All three of the championship-contending teams go into tomorrow's Italian Grand Prix confident that victory is possible, after a gripping qualifying session saw Michael Schumacher re-emerging as the pacesetter after his recent period in the doldrums, and Juan Pablo Montoya, Rubens Barrichello and Kimi Raikkonen right in his wheel tracks.
Substitute Marc Gene did an excellent job as first man out to head the times right up until the moment when Raikkonen, the 16th man to go out, slipped beneath his 1m 21.834s best in his McLaren. Schumacher soon dismissed the Finn's 1m 21.466s lap, however, dipping beneath the 1m 21s barrier with a smooth 1m 20.963s. Barrichello tried and failed to beat that, his 1m 21.242s leaving him temporarily on the outer front row slot, but then Montoya set pulses racing with two first sector times that bettered Schumacher's. Ultimately, however, the time slipped away in the final sector, leaving his 1m 21.014s lap to place him second and push Barrichello back to the second row.
"This is a confirmation of the hard work we have done. We are back at the top, which was shown in qualifying, and this had been our weak part in the last few races," a delighted Schumacher said. "A lot of detail work has gone in on the engine and the aerodynamics, and Bridgestone gave us good tyres. The lap time shows that we are equal with Montoya."
"It was an outstanding lap from Michael and good one from Rubens," said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. "I thought Montoya would beat us after I saw his second sector time because normally they were quicker than us in the third sector. He obviously must have done a mistake."
Montoya agreed that this was so. "I had understeer in Ascari and went wide in the first of the three corners," he admitted. "In that moment I knew it was over."
On the speed trap the Ferrari showed a 5 kph maximum velocity advantage over the Anglo-German car, but Montoya said he was not worried about that. "One team makes a choice of top speed, the other downforce," he said. "We have applied more downforce."
Barrichello was relieved that his morning grip problems had been cured. "The car was good again in the warm-up," he said. "I was expecting to fight for pole, but we changed the brakes before qualifying and I locked the fronts in the first chicane, probably because they weren't up to optimum temperature. I lost all my time there."
Raikkonen had an uneventful lap, which eclipsed team mate David Coulthard's by a full second. The Finn will line up fourth, the troubled Scot eighth.
"It's fine," said Ilmor's Mario Illien. "We are quite happy with the second row of the grid. It shows that we are not miles behind! This is the result of a big effort from the whole team and it is worth remembering that we are usually stronger in the races than in qualifying. Victory is possible."
Marc Gene could also be a contender, since he will start from fifth place as Spain's top dog. "Until now my best qualifying position was 15th," he said, "but I have to say I did two mistakes in the first two chicanes so I could have been quicker still. But it was no handicap that I didn't practice yesterday as I did two days at Monza last week and I know the car well."
Renault's best picking here was a strong 1m 21.944s from Jarno Trulli which suggests that the R23, with its relative lack of horsepower, could be on a short first stint. Unusually, team mate Fernando Alonso made a rare error exiting the first chicane and spun away his chances, so he will start from the back row alongside final qualifier Nicolas Kiesa (1m 26.778s).
Jenson Button continued the strong form he has shown all weekend to grab an excellent seventh place for BAR, his 1m 22.301s winning him top Briton honours over Coulthard. "I'm very pleased," Button smiled. "I thought that eighth was about what I could expect, so seventh is a bonus. It's good to get a lap in for once, and that was the maximum the car could do."
Jacques Villeneuve was less fortunate, losing a lot of time in the first chicane and the second sector to line up 10th on 1m 22.717s.
Olivier Panis was the final top 10 qualifier, placing his Toyota ninth on 1m 22.488s and looking pretty pleased about it. "After all the problems I had this morning the car felt really good, and you can score points from ninth," the Frenchman said cheerfully. Team mate Cristiano da Matta was not so happy, reporting that his TF103 felt nothing like as good as it had yesterday.
Eleventh place was something of a surprise for Jaguar, which had been expecting worse for Webber as he struggled for grip and straight-line speed in the morning. His 1m 22.754s compared well to Justin Wilson's 1m 23.484s. Team principal Tony Purnell said: "We didn't think we could do as well this weekend. And I'm not sure we'll be too bad in the race. There's always a strong element of chance here, and we could be a little bit of a predator for points."
Other noteworthy performances came from Giancarlo Fisichella, expected to be on a very early first stop strategy after placing his Jordan Ford 13th on 1m 22.992s, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen who lost four-tenths of a second with a big oversteer moment in the Parabolica on his way to 1m 23.216s and 14th place for Sauber. Nicolas Kiesa also deserves honourable mention for a major catch after so nearly losing his Minardi when he put a wheel in the dirt exiting Ascari.
Thus the scene is set for yet another close encounter as the best world championship contest in years moves towards its conclusion.
Click here for the qualifying results in full.