Another titanic struggle for supremacy in Barcelona
A gap of 0.024s is tight by any standard, but to put this afternoons first qualifying session at the Circuit de Catalunya properly into perspective you need to know that this tiny margin separated not the first and second-placed cars, but the first and third.
In between Jarno Trullis 1m 14.795s provisional pole-winning lap for Toyota and Kimi Raikkonens 1m 14.819s for McLaren sat the man a huge crowd has come specifically to see Renaults Fernando Alonso.
It soon became clear, after returnee Juan Pablo Montoya and early Imola retirement Giancarlo Fisichella had set the ball rolling, that the session would not be quite as quick as the final practice this morning. Thats normal here, where any temperature change also affects the grip level of the track.
After the Colombians 1m 15.902s had been bettered by the Italians 1m 15.601s, Raikkonen followed out Minardis Patrick Friesacher and did a fine job to redefine the ante, especially given the Finns time included running slightly wide in Turn two. His 1m 14.819s withstood all challengers until Jarno Trulli came out, the fourth to last runner.
Four slots earlier his Toyota team-mate Ralf Schumacher had come close to the McLaren with 1m 14.870s, and then Trulli shaved that down to 1m 14.795s and that would be good enough for the provisional pole; but only just. Alonso, as the Imola winner, was the last man to run and the crowd went quiet when he had a poor first sector, and then delirious when he bettered the second sector time. But over the course of the third his advantage was eroded, and the local hero stopped the clocks in 1m 14.811s, 0.016s short.
That, of course, is nothing that cannot be wiped out tomorrow morning when people run with their race fuel loads. The same goes for the 0.008s gap between Alonso and Raikkonen, so clearly we are set for a great four-way fight for pole.
Behind the leading quartet Nick Heidfeld just beat Williams team mate Mark Webber, with another tiny gap. The Australian posted 1m 15.042s, then the German aced that with 1m 15.038s. Unfortunately, Heidfeld had another engine change this morning and must therefore start from the back end of the grid regardless.
It was unexpected, in light of Bahrain and Imola, to see Michael Schumacher only seventh on 1m 15.398s for Ferrari, especially as he was the penultimate runner and therefore should have enjoyed the best track conditions. But it is a lot warmer here than it was in Imola, and the suggestion is that his Bridgestones did not work quite as well in such circumstances.
Team mate Rubens Barrichello was ninth on 1m 15.746s, separated from his team leader by Fisichella. Like Heidfeld, however, the Brazilian needed an engine change after this morning following a previously unseen problem on his Ferrari V10, so he too will go 10 places back tomorrow.
Thats good news for David Coulthard, the faster of the two Red Bulls with a strong 1m 15.795s, and Felipe Massa, 11th on 1m 15.863s and a little disappointed with his Saubers lack of Imola-type pace. Montoyas time left him 12th, ahead of Vitantonio Liuzzi on 1m 16.288s, after a gripless run with problematic brakes, and a mystified Jacques Villeneuve who was unhappy with his 1m 16.794s.
Narain Karthikeyan continued to show Tiago Monteiro the way round, lapping his Jordan in 1m 18.557s compared to the Portuguese drivers 1m 19.040s. Christijan Albers looked good again, as he pushed his Minardi round in 1m 19.563s to give the promise of a challenge to the yellow cars tomorrow, and Friesacher brought up the rear on 1m 20.306s.
With some very close gaps there is everything to go for after the teams have decided their race strategy, and move into final qualifying tomorrow morning.