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All-Schumacher front row in Japan 10 Oct 2004

Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari F2004.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Japanese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Suzuka, Japan, 8 October 2004

Champion heads lottery going into this afternoon's race

Michael beats Ralf to pole position at Suzuka, with Mark Webber a highly impressive third on the Japanese grid for Jaguar.

Qualifying might have been a long time coming in Suzuka when, for the first time in history the weather forced it to be run on Sunday morning, but it was worth waiting for.

The track was wet when everyone arrived this morning and it never fully dried out even after pre-qualifying. That meant that it got better as qualifying progressed, but there were still a lot of nasty damp patched to catch out the unwary.

Gianmaria Bruni, Fernando Alonso, Jacques Villeneuve, Jenson Button, Takuma Sato, Mark Webber, Ralf Schumacher and, finally, Michael Schumacher, all had turns at the top. Eventually the Ferrari driver pared the best time down to 1m 33.542s.

“It was very difficult with practice only on Friday, then pre-qualifying and qualifying in one hit this morning,” the champion said. “I was more lucky than Rubens being second to last car out and getting better circumstances, so there we are. I should be thankful for not having things so good in China, but having qualifying on the same day as the race is a bit difficult.”

His reference to Barrichello covered the Brazilian’s faux pas in a very slippery chicane which saw him run wide and end his lap with a time of 1m 38.637s, which leaves last year’s Suzuka winner only 15th on the grid.

Ralf Schumacher was happy with his 1m 34.032s, which leaves him second. “I think today it was really a gamble,” he said, “and it helped that I was late out for pre-qualifying thanks to David taking me off in China! The chicane was my main problem and you lost grip quickly on the wet patches, but otherwise it was fine.”

The Williams driver’s time deposed Mark Webber, who was very quick in pre-qualifying. “That one really put us in a good position for main qualifying,” the Australian said. “That first lap was the most important and the second one was a bit easier, to be honest.” It was a much-needed fillip for Jaguar.

Takuma Sato and Jenson Button were fourth and fifth for BAR, on 1m 34.897s and 1m 35.157s respectively. The Englishman ran first, the Japanese driver benefiting a little from improved track conditions by the time he did his run.

After setting the quickest pre-qualifying lap, Jarno Trulli ran last for Toyota and got the best conditions of all, and he used them to the maximum for a lap of 1m 35.213s which was enough to push Giancarlo Fisichella back a row in his Sauber, the Italian lapping in 1m 36.136s. David Coulthard was right behind that on 1m 36.156s for McLaren, and the Scot was way faster than team mate Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn’s lap came earlier in the session and therefore in inferior conditions, but 1m 36.820s suggests that Raikkonen may have been carrying a lot of fuel.

Jacques Villeneuve will start ninth and was very happy with 1m 36.274s to out-qualify Renault team mate Fernando Alonso, who was 11th on 1m 36.663s. They sandwich Olivier Panis on the grid, the Frenchman lining up 10th on 1m 36.420s for what will be his last Grand Prix. With both BARs and both Toyotas in the top 10, the thousands of Japanese fans will have a lot to cheer about come the 2.30pm start.

Behind Raikkonen in 12th place, Juan Pablo Montoya is only 13th on 1m 37.653s after a particularly poor pre-qualifying run, while Christian Klien is alongside side him for Jaguar with 1m 38.258s.

Barrichello is next, with Nick Heidfeld for company, but the Jordan was much slower than the Ferrari with a best lap of 1m 41.953s. That was quicker than team mate Timo Glock, who got the second sector wrong on his way to a slippery 1m 43.533s lap. Bruni was the last driver with a time, lapping his Minardi in 1m 48.089s when the track was at its worst. Team mate Zsolt Baumgartner slithered as far as the Degner Curve before spinning his Minardi PS04B, and he will start at the back with Felipe Massa, who compounded his two Friday practice offs by having another on his qualifying lap, in the Spoon Curve. The Brazilian was very crestfallen afterwards as he aborted the lap and headed for the pits.

With qualifying and the race lozenged into the same day nobody has a perfect set-up, and conditions will have changed again for the race. It looks likely that it will stay dry and that the track will have dried out perfectly by then, and as all of the cars have gone into parc ferme after qualifying nobody can make any further changes. With pole position Michael Schumacher is right where he wants to be, but the race could still be something of a lottery.