Ferrari lock out front row for first race in Bahrain
Jenson Button may have starred this morning, and Ralf Schumacher was fastest in the pre-qualifying, but when it mattered it was Michael Schumacher who grabbed another pole position.
And just to rub it in Rubens Barrichello, who was only 11th in the first run, slipped up the order to take the other front row position. Truth be told, they made it look easy.
As befits this desert track, the animals came in two-by-two, for behind the fleet Ferraris the Williams line up together on row two with the BARs on row three. You have to go back to the fourth row before that symmetry is broken.
Both Schumacher R and Juan Pablo Montoya had been fast in the first run indeed, Ralfs 1m 29.968s from that session was never approached in final qualifying once everyone had decided on their fuel strategy (three stops are the most likely). When it came to his turn Montoya got the second sector badly wrong after dipping beneath Schumachers pole time in the first sector, and in the third the Williams was visibly struggling to turn into the uphill left-hander at the end of the lap. The result, a lap of 1m 30.581s, which came nowhere near close enough to Barrichellos 1m 30.530s, let alone Schumachers 1m 30.136s.
So that left Ralf. Could he do better? After the first sector the answer seemed affirmative, but then he too struggled in sector two and hunted for front end grip up the hill, so it was no surprise when he also came up short with 1m 30.633s.
Behind them, the big surprise was that Takuma Sato was the leading BAR driver. He popped in his 1m 30.827s right before Button, the hero of the morning, went out for his lap. They were close, but in the end the Englishmans best of 1m 30.856s left him sixth and a little bit disappointed after his speed earlier in the day.
Renaults Jarno Trulli put together a smooth 1m 30.971s which was enough for seventh, but team-mate Fernando Alonso had another qualifying day from hell when he over-braked for the first corner and later in the lap ran off the road twice. The result was a feeble 1m 34.130s which leaves him 17th in the line-up. After his computer-game start in Malaysia, however, that might not take him long to overcome
Eight on the grid thus fell to Olivier Panis after Toyota made a big step forward today in setting up its cars. Earlier on Cristiano da Matta had done 1m 31.717s, and Olive edged him back a row with 1m 31.686s.
The final top 10 place went to David Coulthard, and while that is a long way from McLarens expectations as a top race team, it was something good after the teams appalling luck in the morning. The Scot did a clean, if undramatic, job to lap in 1m 31.719s, but when Kimi Raikkonen came to run after posting 1m 30.553s to be second fastest in the preliminary session, he aborted his lap. This time there was no technical reason. It was simply a matter of strategic necessity, since he was due to lose 10 grid places anyway after Fridays engine problem, and would most likely have had to start around 16th place. Remembering what happened to him in Spain when he started from the back of the grid last year, McLaren elected to send him out with a reasonable fuel load and on new tyres, which he scrubbed before pitting at the end of his out lap. He can thus start from the back of the grid, but in good enough shape to make progress the minute the red lights go out tomorrow afternoon.
Giancarlo Fisichella made a big step forward on setting up his Sauber and was disappointed to miss out on eighth place by five-hundredths of a second on his way to 1m 31.731s, while Christian Klien again beat Jaguar partner Mark Webber, who has been struggling to make sense of his R5s set-up all weekend. 12th and 14th places, either side of Felipe Massas Sauber, were a disappointment to the team which had hoped for a third row start here. Neither driver felt that their placings were an accurate reflection of the Jaguars true potential here. As for Massa, a big mistake in the first corner and then another over the kerb in Turn Four killed his prospects instantly.
Nick Heidfeld did his usual clean and unobtrusive job for 15th for Jordan, with team mate Giorgio Pantano making progress to line up only six-tenths behind him. Alonso is next, followed by the Minardis of Gianmaria Bruni (1m 34.584s) and Zsolt Baumgartner (1m 35.787s).
On a circuit where overtaking may be possible, the start could nevertheless be crucial, as the fine powder dust off the racing line may discourage heroics come the race. It remains to be seen whether that factor influenced Ferrari into running a slightly lower fuel load than Williams in a bid to take an on-track advantage, while the pace of BAR suggests they too could be key players. The grid might look all too familiar as far as the front two rows are concerned, but things are likely to be very tight once the inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix gets underway.