Alonso on pole, but are the blue cars running light?
With the two Renaults on the front row, and the McLarens third and fifth, separated by Jenson Buttons BAR Honda, it would be difficult to script a better grid for Sundays Chinese Grand Prix. It will all, of course, depend on the individual fuel loads, but the battle for the constructors world championship could not be better poised.
The fun in qualifying really began in the final quarter. Up until then Juan Pablo Montoya was still the fastest, having taken the honours from Takuma Sato who started first after his disqualification in Japan. The Colombian pushed his McLaren to 1m 35.188s, comfortably eclipsing Satos 1m 37.083s lap. Before Button came out, the closest challengers were the Ferraris. Rubens Barrichello went second fastest with 1m 35.610s, which was subsequently beaten by Michael Schumachers 1m 35.301s. But it was Buttons lap that redefined things as he took the BAR round in 1m 34.801s, setting the fastest times in the first and second sectors.
After Mark Webber had lapped his Williams in 1m 35.739s, however, Fernando Alonso lost no time in pushing Button back a place. The R25 looked smooth and fast on its way to 1m 34.080s, taking all three sector times. Giancarlo Fisichella failed to beat that with 1m 34.401s, so that left Kimi Raikkonen, whose lap was eagerly expected. On this occasion, however, the Finn came up short, and 1m 34.488s left him third on the grid, alongside Button and ahead of Montoya and Schumacher Snr.
Alonso says his Renault was almost perfect, while Fisichella was surprised to be so far up after struggling with his R25s balance; Raikkonen said he was not surprised not to have pole, but that McLarens strategy is strong. A fantastic race is thus in prospect, and the performances of the respective number two drivers will play key roles in the outcome of the championship.
Button is feeling more confident in a car that has recently disappointed in races, while Schumacher and Barrichello, eighth, believe they are in good shape for the strategy that Ferrari have adopted. Between them, David Coulthards strong form continued in the Red Bull as he lapped in 1m 35.428s to take seventh place. Team-mate Christian Klien was only 14th with 1m 36.472s.
Ralf Schumachers lap of 1m 35.723s put Toyota in ninth place ahead of Webber, the Australian managing 1m 35.739s, and Felipe Massa was the final sub-1m 36s runner on 1m 35.898s and described his lap as almost perfect after set-up changes improved the balance.
Those who had to run early tended to suffer as usual as the track had yet to reach its best. Jarno Trulli ran third and managed only 1m 36.044s for 12th ahead of Antonio Pizzonia, whose best lap took 1m 36.445s. That left him ahead of Klien. Then came Narain Karthikeyan who took his Jordan round in 1m 36.707s to beat Jacques Villeneuve. The former champion admitted to a poor lap as his Sauber lacked grip on the way to 1m 36.788s and 16th place. Satos time stood up for only 17th, ahead of Christijan Albers. The Dutchmans best lap for Minardi was 1m 39.105s. Team mate Roberts Doornbos did 1m 39.460s, which sandwiched Jordans Tiago Monteiro on 1m 39.233s.
With a good weather forecast, everything is in prospect for a fitting climax to a great season.