Renault star times it right in changeable conditions
They declared the winning lottery numbers early today - 7, 1, 8, 5, 11 and 2, with 14 as the wild card. Conditions, as you have doubtless guessed, were changeable throughout qualifying.
After the fuss delaying practice this morning, pre-qualifying was wet, and Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello tucked up the two leading spots quite comfortably from Kimi Raikkonen and Sauber men Felipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella.
Come qualifying, however, things went awry. After a spin in pre-qualifying, Ricardo Zonta went out first and qualified a dismal 20th after a very cautious 2m 03.895s. That immediately succumbed to Gianmaria Brunis 2m 02.651s, which left the Minardi pilot 17th overall. Then Olivier Panis banged in a 1m 59.552s that stood as fastest time for a long while and eventually left the Frenchman ninth. Then it began to rain, so Zsolt Baumgartners 2m 03.303s was only good enough for 18th, and Nick Heidfelds 2m 02.645s left him 16th.
The rain has begun to ease when Christian Klien came out to record 2m 01.246s for Jaguar, followed by Giorgio Pantano who only mustered 2m 03.833s for 19th in his Jordan. Then came Mark Webber, whose very strong 1m 58.729s finally dislodged Panis as the fastest. This fine lap would leave him seventh on the grid. Then Antonio Pizzonia lapped in 2m 01.447s for what was then fourth, losing time running up the entry kerbs at Les Combes. Takuma Satos lap looked good initially, but faded to 2m 01.813s. The Brazilian lines up 14th, the Japanese 15th. The first sector wasnt too bad despite the rain, but the second was presenting some drivers with more trouble finding grip than others.
Jenson Button also looked good initially, but lost time in the second sector and finished up with 2m 00.237s for only 12th. But then came the Renaults, and they found the perfect lines, and the perfect tyres, for the conditions. Jarno Trulli, the first man out on intermediates, banged in 1m 56.232s, and Fernando Alonso would have got closer to that than his eventual third fastest 1m 56.686s had he not ridden the exit kerb in Turn 9. David Coulthard also looked strong on his way to 1m 57.990s for fourth on the grid, but just as Juan Pablo Montoya began his lap it began to rain heavily again. The Colombian stopped the clocks in 1m 59.681s, only good enough for 11th.
With the runners switching back to wets, Fisichella revelled in the conditions to snatch fourth place temporarily, with 1m 58.040s, and then Massa did 1m 59.008s which left him eighth overall. Raikkonen did not fare so well, however, his 1m 59.635s leaving him 10th. So now it was a matter of whether two Bridgestone-shod Ferraris could run better in the heavier rain than two Michelin-shod Renaults had in lighter rain. Barrichellos lap was set to run Trulli close, but by the time he reached the Bus Stop chicane his extreme wets had lost their edge, and as he slid wide his time dropped to 1m 58.175s. Good enough only for fifth. That left Michael. Of course, we have come to expect excellence from the champion in such circumstances and he did not disappoint, but in the end even he couldnt make up for the change in conditions, and his valiant 1m 56.304s came up 0.072s short.
That nevertheless leaves him on the front row of the grid, which is hardly a disaster, and with a dry race predicted his chances of clinching his seventh world title remain unaffected. Behind him, however, there will be a lot of people pushing hard to make up ground, and just as many resisting them with everything theyve got. Trulli, Schumacher, Alonso, Coulthard, Fisichella, Barrichello, Webber, Massa, Panis, Raikkonen - it should be a good race.