The Jenson Interloper

Jenson Button, San Marino GP 2004

Jenson Button, San Marino GP 2004 

 © The Cahier Archive

The key moment in the qualifying process for the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola was when Michael Schumacher went into the Variante Alta chicane and, in his own words, "overdid it a little bit". Michael held on to the moment and the car did not spin, but it was close.

"I was lucky to keep it on the circuit," he said. The lap was still good enough for second place on the grid but Michael Schumacher had been beaten. One might conclude from this that Michael made a mistake and that was that but the important message was not that but rather why it had happened. Michael was under pressure. And the pressure came not from Williams or McLaren, nor even from Renault but rather from BAR-Honda.

Jenson Button has been dominant in recent testing but few have taken it very seriously. BAR we know is looking for money for the future and, well, let us just say that there are "commercial strategies" that one can use to look good if that is what you wish to do. But this was different. BAR-Honda was right up there on this configuration of race track, where aerodynamic efficiency is less important than horsepower and acceleration.

There was a time when the Imola circuit was about high speed aerodynamics but that is long gone now, blotted out by a rash of chicanes in the 1970s.

"Jenson really did put in a good lap," Michael Schumacher was forced to admit. "It was all or nothing. I tried very hard."

And he made a mistake.

The performance of BAR was not in doubt on Friday when Button and Takuma Sato were 1-2 on the timesheets

Underlining this performance and the fact that the third BAR driver Anthony Davidson - a talented driver in his own right - was sixth quickest.

"It is satisfying to have three drivers in the top six," said David Richards on Friday. "This really reflects the tremendous team work that has become our core strength. Since Bahrain everyone has continued to work flat out to maintain the momentum of the first three races. We are completely focussed on pushing ourselves to the limit in every area."

The BAR-Honda team had a new aerodynamic package for this race and an engine upgrade. The cars were reliable and there are signs that we are seeing much more of the Honda of the late 1980s and early 1990s than the Honda of the late 1990s. Back then at every race there was something new.

"We have made a good step here," said Button. "It is great to see the progress we are making with Honda and with Michelin. I had a couple of very good tests after Bahrain. It is great to break Ferrari's streak of poles so far this season and on their home turf as well, but pole position does not bring you any points unless you work very hard in the race to maintain that starting position. We are under no illusions that tomorrow is going to be a tough race."

There were, of course, those in the paddock who thought that BAR was running with a light fuel load.

"We were not running light," whispered the deep throats within the team.

Underlining Jenson's performance in qualifying was Takuma Sato who was seventh.

"I did not feel I had a lot of grip," said Taku. He was running over a few too many kerbs at the end of his qualifying run and so lost time.

"Think how good BAR would be if Jacques Villeneuve was in the second car," someone said. It was an interesting thought but the conclusion that was quickly drawn was that actually Jacques was part of the former BAR problem. Management in F1 is more important than money.

That point was made over the winter by Ron Dennis of McLaren when a bunch of journalists went round to his new factory in Woking. The secret of F1 success, he said, is management. Now McLaren is singing a rather different song because suggestions that management is at the root of the current problems are being rebuffed in robust fashion. The team management is fully focussed on the job etc etc. If this is the case one must ask why it is therefore that we are seeing David Coulthard 11th on the grid and Kimi Raikkonen down the back (as usual) after an engine problem on his warming up lap. The cool Finn is famous for having the kind of nature which is reminiscent of Barbie's ex-boyfriend Ken but beneath this untroubled exterior, Raikkonen, one would hope, is steaming like an old locomotive.

Ron Dennis said the team had made progress since Bahrain but that this was not apparent.

And who can argue with that?

Down at Ferrari Jean Todt's face, a zone which is rarely creased by jollity, seemed a little severe. The great Schumacher is not supposed to make mistakes. Rubens Barrichello had also not done as well he might and while second and fourth on the grid is not bad at all, for Ferrari it almost looked like a crisis.

The two red cars were split by the presence of Juan Pablo Montoya in his Williams-BMW. Ralf Schumacher was beaten and Montoya made the point that this was the first time he had beaten Ralf at Imola. No-one was really very surprised. The difference between the two William drivers was just three-tenths but Montoya once again was the more convincing. The team is making progress but when you have wild cards like Button leaping into the picture that was a little obscured.

Aside from McLaren the big disappointment was Renault, which had seemed to promise more with a new engine spec but sixth and ninth was not a massive result even if the team was more confident for the race.

Jaguar was more or less where one would expect to find them with Mark Webber in eighth place and Christian Klien 14th. Of the rest it was worth noting that Giorgio Pantano had outrun Nick Heidfeld for the first time now that he has been given a little testing and time to understand his car. That is pretty impressive after only three races against a driver with Nick's pace and experience.

They say that one swallow does not a summer make but there are signs (which we have hinted at before) which suggest that this World Championship could still explode with excitement and that the Jonahs who wailed and gnashed their teeth about Ferrari domination were getting it wrong.

We shall see...


Michael Schumacher (2nd, 1:20.011): "Once I saw that Jenson had done a good lap, I knew that for me it was a case of all or nothing. So I tried very hard, but I overdid it at the Variante Alta. I was actually lucky not to go off the track and spin. But even without that moment, I do not think I would have been quick enough for pole. I think it will be an interesting race tomorrow and a tight battle, especially the run down to the first corner, given the potential of the drivers at the front end of the grid. I was happy with my car today, although I did not have much grip in pre-qualifying as, once again I was the "road sweeper" being first out on track."

Rubens Barrichello (4th, 1:20.451): "Together with the engineers, we improved my car a lot compared to yesterday, when I was unhappy with the set-up. In qualifying I was on a good lap, but it was not perfect in the final sector, which cost me precious time and positions. However, I am still confident for the race. We know we can count on a really good car and the Bridgestone tyres which we can rely on to go well even over a long distance."

Jean Todt, Team Principal: "For the first time this season, we do not have a Ferrari on pole position. Doubtless, it will not be the last, just as there will be races where we will be back at the head of the field in qualifying. Michael was on an amazing lap, but a small off-track excursion in the third sector cost him first place and so he finds himself starting from "only" second. Rubens was also going well, but he was not impeccable in the final section of the track and so maybe he could have been a bit higher up the order. However, "ifs" and "buts" count for nothing in the end! The car, the engine, the Bridgestone tyres, Shell's fuel and lubricants: we have everything in place to put up a good fight in tomorrow's race. Racing in front of our fans and employees of the Ferrari Maserati Group who will be here with their families will give us an additional boost to give it our best and do well."

Ross Brawn, Technical Director: "It was a very exciting qualifying session, probably the most unpredictable so far this season. Obviously, we are a bit disappointed not to be on pole in Imola, but we believe we have what we need to be competitive tomorrow, given that we still have both cars on the front two rows of the grid. Michael's final sector didn't quite come together and the same went for Rubens, who also lost a bit in the final part of the track, having managed, along with his engineers, to significantly improve his car compared to yesterday's free practice."


Juan Pablo Montoya (3rd, 1:20.212): "I am very pleased with today's result even if we did not equal the pre-qualifying session's positions as we were on a different fuel level, we have an excellent race car and this is what matters. We were able to improve the car from yesterday and we are now in a good position to start the race. Jenson put in a very good lap and also BAR and Honda have given him a better car with a better engine, this weekend. When I saw Jenson's time I thought: what time is Michael Schumacher then going to set? It was an exciting qualifying!"

Ralf Schumacher (5th, 1:20.538): "On one hand I am not unhappy because I know I have made the most out of the car, but on the other hand we were struggling with a couple of minor problems throughout the weekend and could not get rid of them completely. However I am pretty confident for the race as I believe my car is very well prepared. By the way, congratulations to Jenson on his first pole!"

Sam Michael, Chief Operations Engineer: "It was not a bad qualifying today. We have made a couple of changes overnight which improved the balance of the cars for today. We have a good race set-up on both cars, so we are looking forward to tomorrow's race. Reliability wise everything has been fine so far, but over the race distance the circuit will be very demanding on brakes."

Dr. Mario Theissen, BMW Motorsport Director: "We have witnessed an exciting qualifying today with an unexpected result. Congratulations to Jenson Button and BAR who have achieved their very first pole position. We have decided our qualifying strategy in relation to the fact that the circuit becomes faster during the sessions. So positions three and five in the end are good results. We did not experience any technical problems."


David Coulthard (11th, 1:21.091): "During my qualifying run I locked up at the last corner which cost me some time. However, despite today's qualifying result our pace generally has been better here at Imola and we have seen some improvement. I have no doubt, that we will continue to make progress, but it will take some time. Let's wait and see what the race will bring."

Kimi Raikkonen (19th, No Time): "Obviously I'm disappointed to experience the same sort of thing two races in a row. However there is nothing I can do about it, and I will just go out tomorrow and do the best I can. I will have a new engine and a lot of determination, so we will see what happens."

Ron Dennis, Team Principal: "Although it's clearly not apparent, we have made progress since the Bahrain Grand Prix. David's lock up in the last sector was costly as the times are extremely close. Kimi's problem was related to a damaged exhaust valve seat ring which was not considered by the engineers to be able to finish the race. As a result we took the decision to change the engine and his race strategy for tomorrow."

Norbert Haug, Mercedes Motorsport Director: "We will change Kimi's engine after qualifying because we found a leakage in an exhaust valve seat ring. As a consequence Kimi has to start from the back of the grid."


Fernando Alonso (6th, 1:20.895): "Sixth is a good position for us as I think the car is quick in race conditions, and that we can be very consistent on the long runs. On the timed lap, the handling was still a bit nervous but I think that is the same for the other drivers: grip levels have been low this weekend, and that has made our job a bit more difficult. Overall, I am confident and think we will perhaps be able to fight at the front tomorrow."

Jarno Trulli (9th, 1:21.034): "A pretty good qualifying session for me: I made some little mistakes in the first and third sectors, but that only cost me a tenth or maybe two. We are hoping for a trouble-free race tomorrow and then we are capable of scoring good points. Clearly, it will be a very close battle, but we worked well today, and I am optimistic for the race."

Pat Symonds, Executive Director of Engineering: "A good straightforward qualifying session. The car balance was, as expected, reasonable rather than perfect, but both drivers put in good laps. The tyres are performing very well and providing the weather conditions remain reasonable, we can look forward to a competitive performance. As always after qualifying, speculation now turns to when the teams will make their first pit-stops: we certainly have not compromised our race strategy in favour of qualifying performance."

Denis Chevrier, Engine Operations Manager: "Our qualifying performance today almost matches our best so far this season, in Australia. Both drivers put in very equal performances, and the new engine brought a gain which will be maintained throughout tomorrow's race. We are clearly in a position to challenge strongly tomorrow, but the question is now whether we can get a good haul of points, or whether we will have to settle for less."


Jenson Button (1st, 1:19.753): "Obviously I'm thrilled to achieve pole position - the first for me and the team. This is a fantastic moment in my career and the team's history, and I'm just so pleased for everyone who is now starting to see all their hard work and support pay off. It's great to break Ferrari's streak of poles so far this season - and on their home turf as well - but pole doesn't bring you points unless you work very hard in the race to maintain that starting position. We are under no illusions that tomorrow is going to be a tough race and we'll have to watch Michael every step of the way. But the car feels great; much better than in pre-qualifying when I had very low grip. I was really pleased with my lap and it all came together when it counted. For the first time in my F1 career I'll be starting the race with no one in front of me, which I know will be a special moment for me, but I'll be focusing 100% on the start lights because it's all down to me from there."

Takuma Sato (7th, 1:20.913): "It was not a perfect final qualifying lap for me because I didn't feel that I had a lot of grip, so I'm not satisfied. I was possibly riding the kerbs too much in the last sector, but the car generally worked well and I think we will have a strong package tomorrow. It is great to have two cars qualifying so high at the first European grand prix, especially with Jenson's pole position. Our new package has been working incredibly well so everyone in the team and at Honda and Michelin should be very pleased with the results we have seen here. I am delighted that we have had such a good season so far and hopefully we can achieve another solid two-car finish tomorrow."

David Richards, Team Principal: "Taking pole position in Italy has to be one of life's most exciting moments, and this demonstrates what an incredible job everyone has done. Jenson's calm and committed lap was superb, Honda has done a fantastic job and all our hard work with Michelin over the winter is now paying dividends. But I think as much as anything, it is the unsung heroes back at base in England who should be proud of everything we have achieved together for this pole position."

Geoffrey Willis, Technical Director: "Naturally I'm delighted, but not too surprised, to be on pole here - the first pole position from the team and Michelin's first pole of the season. Following the last three very successful tests we felt confident that we would be highly competitive here and the new upgrades would be a significant advantage. We have a very strong driver line-up with all three of them working extremely well together, which gives us a big advantage. Both Jenson and Takuma have good race set-ups and it's now down to the whole team to maximise this opportunity tomorrow."

Shuhei Nakamoto, Honda Engineering Director: "Fantastic. Jenson really did a great lap. To have pole this weekend means a lot to us all because the last time we were on pole was with Ayrton in 1992. I am looking forward to seeing how both the guys get on in the main event tomorrow."


Felipe Massa (12th, 1:21.532): "I was happier with the car today. I made a mistake in pre-qualifying, otherwise my lap would have been better, but everything went well for me in qualifying and given the strategy we have chosen I am satisfied with my performance this afternoon. Our car will be more competitive in the race."

Giancarlo Fisichella (20th, No Time): "I'm really disappointed. We made progress with the car today and it was better balanced than yesterday and slightly better on the first lap on new tyres. In pre-qualifying I thought I did a very good lap, but on my in lap I felt a problem with third gear. Unfortunately there wasn't enough time to change it before qualifying, so here I am at the back of the grid. It's my home race, and I knew it will be very tough starting that far back..."

Peter Sauber, Team Principal: "We are pleased that Felipe got everything out of the car in the configuration in which we chose to run it today. Unfortunately, Giancarlo's gearbox broke after pre-qualifying so he was unable to exploit the progress we have made on set-up this morning."


Mark Webber (8th, 1:20.921): "I underperformed slightly in my first session so we decided to make a slight change to the front flap to further improve the balance and general set-up of the car. This seemed to work and I am pleased with my final qualifying position for tomorrow's race. The boys have done a good job in preparing the car and Michelin have delivered on the tyres so we are in good shape for the race. I am aiming for some points here at Imola as we know we have a good car with pace on track and if we can capitalise on some attrition then there is no reason why we cannot score some. The circuit is historically hard on the car so we will just have to wait and see what happens. We have the potential!"

Christian Klien (14th, 1:21.949): "This morning was disappointing as I did not complete as many laps as I had planned. I made a driver error shortly after going out on track and as a result of the damage to the car the team had to do a very quick job in changing my chassis around with that of the T-car. They have done a good job so when I went out this afternoon the car was well balanced and set-up for me. My qualifying lap was ok and I am reasonably pleased with how it went. I am looking forward to tomorrow as I know that the R5 has good pace and I will be making the most of any opportunity to move up the grid during the race."

Mark Gillan, Head of Vehicle Performance: "It was frustrating not to have Christian complete more laps this morning ahead of qualifying, but as a result of braking slightly too late into corner 12 the car spun and was damaged quite extensively. We were forced to change the chassis but not the engine and fortunately as a result of the team working flat-out we even managed to get Christian out for another eight laps at the end of this morning's sessions. He did a good job in qualifying and I am pleased with his position considering the little amount of running he has had all weekend. Mark did a good job today and completed several laps allowing us to make a few changes before his final qualifying to further improve the balance of the car. Looking ahead to tomorrow we are in a good position for the race and we will be focusing on making a good start. Overtaking here can be difficult so we will be working on our strategy tonight to look at ways that we can make the most of any opportunities on track."


Cristiano Da Matta (10th, 1:21.087): "I am happy to be in the top ten again. Actually I pushed a little bit too hard in sector one, which cost me some time. With another couple of tenths less I would have been in the top six. The handling of the TF104 was quite good and the car felt really strong in the second and third sectors of my lap. I made no mistakes and was able to drive aggressively. Tomorrow I will do my best to finish in the points."

Olivier Panis (13th, 1:21.558): "We have done a good job again this weekend. In fact the gap to some of the other teams is much closer. It is positive that we are progressing constantly and concentrate on the right issues. Reliability is a strong point, so hopefully we can have a successful race. Unfortunately I had an electronic problem on the warm-up lap and was close to stopping the car, but then the system came back. However, it may have affected my concentration and cost me three tenths or so."

Luca Marmorini, Technical Director, Engine: "I am really satisfied with our qualifying result. Traditionally Imola has not been one of our more competitive circuits but we are right in among a very close set of times in the middle of the grid. Generally the set-up is good and the drivers have consistently improved it since yesterday. There are six cars within two tenths of a second and so we can be optimistic for the race tomorrow. Imola is quite tough on engines but currently we have a 100% finishing record in races this year. There is not a lot of full throttle running as the track has a lot of bumps and kerb-riding, which is stressful for engines and means very high rpm. Of course we will be aiming for points in the race."


Giorgio Pantano (15th, 1:23.352): "I'm feeling a little bit more positive at this race because I'm getting much closer to my teammate and that is the important thing for me. I think we have also made some changes which have improved the car a bit, and the gap between us and the cars in front is getting smaller. A few more races and hopefully we can close it even more. I'm happy with my qualifying and really looking forward to racing tomorrow."

Nick Heidfeld (16th, 1:23.488): "I think my qualifying lap was not too bad although half way through I started to lose a bit of grip, with oversteer affecting the rest of the lap. Otherwise, we have some new things and the car has improved since the last race. I would have hoped to have been even closer to the cars ahead of us but we just have to keep working hard to close the gap."

James Robinson, Director of Race and Test Engineering: "There seemed to be some different ideas about fuel load strategy in the first qualifying session today and it's quite hard to understand why certain cars chose to do what they did in the second session. Giorgio wasn't happy with the balance of the car in first qualifying, but Dominic (Harlow, his race engineer) made a number of changes much to Giorgio's liking and he made good use of the car in second qualifying. Nick was reasonably happy with the car. Following his first run he only made a number of small changes but felt he didn't have as much grip in the second run, getting a little bit sideways at Aqua Minerale. It will be interesting to see where people are with regards to strategy in the race tomorrow and if any of the cars pit before lap 10."

Eddie Jordan, Team Principal: "Congratulations to everyone at BAR Honda on their fine pole position. Honda's last pole was with Jordan and Heinz Harald Frentzen at the European Grand Prix at Nurburgring in 1999."


Gianmaria Bruni (17th, 1:26.899): "Unfortunately, we just weren't able to find a good balance for the car today, and on my flying lap, exiting the last corner, I hit the curb so hard that it knocked the steering wheel out of my hands and I accidentally hit the button for the pit-lane speed limiter. As a result, I lost over half-a-second before I could fix the problem. We'll run the new aero package tomorrow because we want to get some miles on it and develop a better understanding of how it works. It will be a tough race, but we'll see what we can do."

Zsolt Baumgartner (18th, 1:46.299): "It has been quite a busy time for the team after the spin I had this morning. I have to thank the guys for the tremendous job they did changing over the spare car, which was set for Gimmi, during the lunch break. It felt different from my race car in the pre-qualifying run, but I just had to push hard for a time on the second run. Unfortunately, I made a mistake at the Variante Alta, but sometimes that happens when you are trying really hard. I am pleased, however, by the fact my first sector time on that lap was not bad. The goal is to have a consistent race tomorrow, as we did in Bahrain, and we'll just see what we can do."

Paul Stoddart, Team Principal: "Sadly, this has been our worst qualifying performance of the year and not one of which we are proud. Zsolt spun on his final run and Gimmi accidentally engaged the pit-lane speed limiter when exiting the last corner of the circuit on his flying lap. The result is that both Minardi entries failed to demonstrate their potential. This will make tomorrow's race difficult, but it's another day, and we look forward to completing one of our home races."

Print Story