Rivals left reeling as Ferrari ace dominates
Michael Schumacher takes pole position, with Takuma Sato second on the grid, after a stunning lap from the world champion.
When Takuma Sato stood everyone on their ear with a stunning lap of 1m 27.691s in pre-qualifying, hopes rose that qualifying would be a close-fought thing. After all, the Japanese racers time had eclipsed Michael Schumachers 1m 28.278s quite comfortably, after that had itself supplanted pacemakers Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher.
It didnt quite work out that way when the dust had settled, however, for the world champions qualifying lap of 1m 28.351s left everyone thoroughly demoralised, and Satos reply a 1m 28.986s came up short even if it did leave him on the other front row grid slot.
Does this really mean that Ferrari have such a massive advantage, since the team habitually qualifies with more fuel than its rivals? Or have they changed their strategy here and run a trifle lighter? No prizes for guessing which option rivals would prefer, or which is the more likely.
The session began with the Minardis being supplanted by Nick Heidfeld and Giorgio Pantano in their Jordans, but a slide in Turn 7 killed Felipe Massas chances of beating the yellow cars. Then came Christian Klien with 1m 31.431s, a time which was subsequently beaten albeit only temporarily by team mate Mark Webbers Jaguar. Once the Australians one second penalty (for speeding under yellow flags on Friday) had been factored in, however, his time became 1m 31.797s.
Renaults Jarno Trulli was the first heavy hitter to run, and immediately his 1m 29.135s best redefined the pace. Sauber elected to save Giancarlo Fisichellas tyres because he was going to get a 10-place grid penalty in any case after his Friday morning engine change, so next up as his Sauber was wheeled straight to parc ferme were the Toyotas of Cristiano da Matta and Olivier Panis. They went third and second respectively with 1m 29.706s and 1m 29.697s apiece before Williams Juan Pablo Montoya replaced them with 1m 29.354s. Fernando Alonso soon moved him aside with 1m 29.313s in the Renault, and then Barrichello also squeezed ahead of the Colombian with 1m 29.353s.
This was a session for close times. Barrichello beat Montoya by a thousandth of a second, and then Kimi Raikkonens attempt to dislodge Trulli failed by two thousandths. The McLaren driver might have succeeded but for running a little wide exiting the hairpin.
Jenson Button was also doomed to disappointment, at least as far as pole was concerned, after running his BAR a little wide on the entry to Turn 2. He temporarily went up to third place with 1m 29.245s.
Ralf Schumacher couldnt beat that in his Williams and ended his lap in 1m 29.459s, and then came brother Michaels stunner, a whopping 0.784s quicker than Trulli. Sato cut that margin to 0.635s, but already the writing may be on the wall for this one (and probably in German or Italian, rather than French, Japanese or English!)
Joining Fisichella at the back of the grid was a philosophical but deeply disappointed David Coulthard. The Scot bettered team mate Raikkonens pre-qualifying time but his McLaren ground to a halt on his in lap. Since the rules say that you cannot run in qualifying if you do not get back to the pits under your own steam in pre-qualifying, he was through for the day.
As usual the game is to see who ran what fuel level in qualifying, but only the most reckless would bet against Schumacher and Ferrari tomorrow afternoon.
Note - Minardi's Gianmaria Bruni subsequently had his qualifying time deleted after stewards deemed him to have exited the pit lane when the pit exit lights were red. He will therefore start from 20th on the grid.