Spaniard wins tightly-fought qualifying contest
A Renault P1 on the grid, Michael Schumacher pushing a little too hard in the final sector, and David Coulthard acing Jenson Button to make it an all-British second row thus far the French Grand Prix has the makings of an unpredictable contest.
In conditions that were dry all day after the rain caused so many upsets yesterday, Michael Schumacher found Kimi Raikkonen ahead of him in practice this morning, and then saw Juan Pablo Montoya set the fastest pre-qualifying time. During that session Ferrari lost Rubens Barrichello to hydraulic problems, so the Brazilian kicked off qualifying, but with compromised set-up time he could only lap in 1m 14.478s and that held up for only 10th place overall. It was fastest, however, until a mid-session flurry initiated when Marc Gene did 1m 14.275s to push his Williams to the front.
Takuma Sato immediately lowered that to 1m 14.240s for BAR, and then Jarno Trulli asserted himself for Renault with 1m 14.070s. No sooner had the dust settled on the Italians run, however, than Jenson Button banged in 1m 13.995s to grab the honours. There was a quick break, before Fernando Alonso put a stop to all that with 1m 13.698s. That was comfortably sufficient to withstand Kimi Raikkonens 1m 14.346s in his new McLaren MP4-19B, but on-form David Coulthard got a lot closer in the teams best qualifying performance of the year as he lapped in 1m 13.987s.
I have a lot of confidence we can build on this, the Scot said. I like to think we have qualified with a strategy that will give us a good chance in the race.
Michael Schumachers effort came next and the champion was in his usual aggressive form, but he came up short with 1m 13.971s. I maybe pushed a little too hard and lost time over the kerbs in the final sector, he admitted, adding: but they are there for everyone, so
Alonso smiled afterwards, and said: Im very happy. We dont know what is going to happen tomorrow. It was a surprise, so well see.
The final chance to dislodge him fell to Montoya, but his eventual 1m 14.172s was disappointing unless of course last years winning team had both drivers on a greater fuel load, in which case Montoya and Gene may be looking good tomorrow afternoon.
With Button fourth and Trulli fifth, Montoya lines up sixth ahead of Sato and Gene, Raikkonen and Barrichello.
Cristiano da Matta upstaged local hero Olivier Panis in the Toyota camp, with an 11th fastest 1m 14.553s, to the Frenchmans 1m 15.130s. The Jaguars slipped in between them, with Mark Webber just heading Christian Klien, 1m 14.798s to 1m 15.065s. Giancarlo Fisichella used the spare Sauber Petronas after his morning dramas (the cause of which has yet to be determined), and his 1m 16.177s for 15th just edged Felipe Massas 1m 16.200s. Both expect to race better than they qualified.
Nick Heidfeld got the better of Giorgio Pantano in the Jordan fight, 1m 16.807s to 1m 17.462s, and Gianmaria Bruni likewise outran Zsolt Baumgartner at Minardi, 1m 17.913s to 1m 18.247s.
There may have been a lot of light-fuel qualifying up the sharp end of the grid, so a lot will depend on how well individual drivers get away at the start on a circuit on which overtaking is traditionally almost impossible.