Ferrari-Jaguar front row for Malaysian Grand Prix
After his practice performance this morning few doubted that Michael Schumacher would disappoint this afternoon, and the world champion duly delivered yet another pole position for Ferrari and Bridgestone.
Of the front runners, Juan Pablo Montoya was the first to take the fastest time, for BMW Williams, with 1m 34.054s. The Colombian was thought to be carrying a reasonable fuel load, as was team mate Ralf Schumacher whose 1m 34.235s would eventually leave him in seventh on the grid. They were then split by Jenson Button, who once again proved the inherent pace of the BAR and its Honda V10 engine as he worked down to a smooth and unflustered 1m 34.221s.
That withstood David Coulthard's efforts, in a McLaren that looked more competitive than it had in Australia thanks to several new aerodynamic components which included a new front wing. The Scot lapped in 1m 34.602s, a time that would leave him ninth. However, Button's time did not hold up to Kimi Raikkonen's 1m 34.164s in the other McLaren, the Finn vaulting up to fifth place shortly after Rubens Barrichello had momentarily annexed pole position with 1m 33.756s. That was slower than Fernando Alonso has gone in the previous qualifying session in similar temperatures (1m 33.193s).
The last part of qualifying was comfortably the best. No sooner had Barrichello done his lap than the increasingly impressive Mark Webber and Jaguar R5 combination came out. Like Button, Webber looked smooth and collected as he shaved beneath the Brazilian's time with 1m 33.715s, to put the green car at the head of the timesheets.
"That felt great," Webber grinned. "The team have done a fantastic job and it's just great to be able to reward everyone. I think we are looking good for tomorrow."
Just to keep the momentum of change running, Schumacher came out next, and underlined his superiority with a lap of 1m 33.074s that, as ever, seemed easy. "The car was almost perfect and I'm really pleased with its performance so far this weekend," the champion said. "We knew that it would be tight today, but we will start from the best position and we know that our tyres are very good, so I am feeling optimistic for the race."
As it transpired, Schumacher and Webber would share the front row, a first for Jaguar. Back in 1999 when the Stewart Ford team began to metamorphose into Jaguar, former Ford chief Jac Nasser had spoken of stemming the red tide with a 'sea of green'. It has taken a long time for evidence of that to emerge, but today was undoubtedly the high point in Jaguar's Formula One campaign.
After Raikkonen had failed to do better than fifth place, the two Renaults came out, in the order Jarno Trulli and then Fernando Alonso. Suggesting that he was running a reasonable fuel load, the Italian did an undramatic 1m 34.413s best for eighth in the line-up. Alonso was faster on his run, but then the Renault snapped away from him and he spun into the gravel. He thus became the first major victim of a single-lap qualifying gaffe of 2004, joining BAR's Takuma Sato on the back row after the Japanese racer had earlier lost his BAR in tricky Turn 14.
Cristiano da Matta redeemed himself after all his morning adventures with 10th fastest time of 1m 34.917s, to the annoyance of the Sauber drivers. Felipe Massa complained of poor rear-end stability ion the final sector on his way to 11th, while Giancarlo Fisichella said that the same problem cost him his chance of a top 10 placing. They lapped in 1m 35.039s and 1m 35.061s respectively.
Behind them Christian Klien continued up his learning curve in the Jaguar with 1m 35.158s to edge out Olivier Panis's 1m 35.617s, and Nick Heidfeld, as expected, proved best of the rest with 1m 36.569s for Jordan. Once again Gianmaria Bruni was the quicker Minardi pilot, his 1m 38.577s bettering Zsolt Baumgartner's 1m 39.272s, while Giorgio Pantano only got one run after his Jordan failed to make it out for the first session. He managed 1m 39.902s but will start from the penultimate row after Alonso's and Sato's mistakes.
As usual, it is hard to predict precise race pace since so much depends on fuel load and tyre wear. Schumacher looks good, but we'll have to wait until tomorrow to see just what strategy each team has chosen.