Michael Schumacher, Japanese GP 2004

Michael Schumacher, Japanese GP 2004 

 ¬© The Cahier Archive

Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Hercules Poirot, Inspector Jules Maigret and even Endeavour Morse would have failed to unravel the truth about qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix. It was simply beyond even the best detectives to know what was going on in the time available. The passage of Typhoon Ma-on on Saturday left F1 with no choice but to qualify on Sunday morning. The interesting thing was that the new schedule gave everyone no time but there was a real buzz of excitement, something we are not used to on Sunday mornings since the invention of parc ferme racing. This makes a good case for a final qualifying run-off on the morning before the race but two-day meetings might be a little much.

The qualifying sessions on Sunday morning took place with a track that was drying. The people who ran first, ran slowest. The proof, if any was needed, was that the first car to run was a Ferrari which Rubens Barrichello, the winner in China, at the wheel. He lapped the track in 1m41.001s. Just over an hour and a half later Michael Schumacher lapped the track in 1m33.542s and took pole position.

The key thing was the running order and the ability to keep the car on the island.

But beyond that it was really impossible to know who was doing what. There were wing settings, tyre choices and fuel strategies to be considered and no hints at all as to who was doing what. You could argue that it was all meaningless but the truth is that the grid is vital in how a race unfolds.

The fact that is probably worth mentioning is that the two Schumachers, who qualified 1-2, made the point of saying that it was good that things had gone wrong for them in China. This meant that they ran late in the pre-qualifying sessions and therefore were faster than those who ran early. This meant they ran late in the final qualifying session, when the track was almost dry. Do well in China and suffer in Japan.

The running which was done on Friday was largely irrelevant. Michael Schumacher was fastest in both sessions with Giancarlo Fisichella second for Sauber. It was therefore Bridgestone weather. But none of the race drivers did more than 17 laps and Michael did just 10. Felipe Massa, a fan of sand traps, managed a grand total of zero flying laps in his Sauber as he skated off every time he tried to go fast.

The qualifying session had been declared wet and it was very clear that the race would be dry and so there would be what they call a "Change in Climatic Conditions". This meant that the teams could change tyres before the race and so there was nothing to be gained by trying risky tyre strategies. The Michelin men went on dry tyres rather than intermediates but that was really because they no choice. The Michelin intermediates have never been great.

Montoya was fifth in China and so ran fifth in prequalifying but he had a couple of big moments and his time was so bad that he would have to run third in qualifying. And that really was the end of the story because those who ran early were slower than those who ran late.

Montoya was soon beaten by Fernando Alonso but whether this was due to improving conditions or the car was a mystery. It was a surprise to see Jacques Villeneuve a few minutes later beat Alonso's time, despite a mistake at the chicane, but the conditions and Jacques increasing knowledge of the Renault might account for that.

Kimi Raikkonen's performance was much slower than one would have expected and one could only guess that he was running with a heavy fuel load. The Finn would end up 12th on the grid. David Coulthard was eighth.

The crowd was warming to the action, however, and when Jenson Button blasted the Rising Sun-bearing BAR-Honda to the fastest time they began to get excited. Barrichello seemed to have Button beaten on his lap but the Brazilian made a mistake at the chicane and slid off. He would start the race in 15th position.

Fisichella showed what Massa should have been doing as he went second quickest although he would slip down to seventh by the end of the session. But seventh in a Sauber is pretty good.

Inevitably there was much excitement when Takuma Sato came out and he was right on the edge all the way, giving his all and sideways in the chicane. But it did not lose him much time and he ended the lap quicker than Button. The crowds loved that. A few moments later Taku was beaten by Mark Webber's Jaguar. It was a great achievement for those at Jaguar Racing.

"The lap in pre-qualifying was most important because it put us in a good position for qualifying," he said. "The second lap was a bit easier. It has been a good day! But only 10% of the work is done."

Ralf Schumacher was quicker than Webber by half a second but he was carrying a lot of wing and one wondered what might happen in the dry. Perhaps the Williams would be slow on the straights.

That would help his brother to walk away because Michael took pole.

"I should be thankful for not having things so good in China," he said. "Having qualifying on the same day as the race is a bit difficult. Having damp conditions does not normally help us but I managed to get a lap without too many mistakes."

The only hope was that Toyota's new boy Jarno Trulli would outrun Schumacher but the car was not up to the job although sixth on the grid was still a good effort.

Ralf said that thanks to the accident in China he was in a good position at Suzuka because he ran late in the pre-qualifying session. But, said Ralf, the only thing that qualifying proved to him was that "the Ferrari is the stronger car."

But would it be in the race?


Michael Schumacher (1st, 1:33.542):

Rubens Barrichello (15th, 1:38.637):

Jean Todt, Team Principal:

Ross Brawn, Technical Director:


Ralf Schumacher (2nd, 1:34.032): "Under these unpredictable conditions, with the track quickly changing, it was no easy qualifying. I took advantage of my poor race result in China and the consequent late starting position in pre-qualifying today, and managed to run on a dry and improving track during both the qualifying sessions. I am very happy with this result also because I know we have a good race car and strong chances to collect some valuable points."

Juan Pablo Montoya (13th, 1:37.653): "I†had a quite bad pre-qualifying, mainly due to the fact that the pressure of my tyres wasn't ideal. I therefore had to take some risks in final qualifying and we decided to go out on dry tyres. This choice paid off, because I could slightly improve my position from first qualifying. We have a good race car and I am confident we can collect some points."

Sam Michael, Technical Director: "With the new modified weekend format and the fact that we had no free practice here under dry conditions, tyre choice and set up were difficult but it's the same for all teams. In qualifying we had quite variable conditions which made the grid interesting. Only in the race this afternoon we will find out what everyone's true pace is. Both drivers did a good job in qualifying. In prequalifying we made a mistake with the tyre pressure on Juan's car, that's why he was slow."

Dr. Mario Theissen, BMW Motorsport Director: "Qualifying without set-up work was a truely new experience. Especially under drying conditions it was a kind of a gamble. In final qualifying Juan was the first driver to go out on dry tyres, which was a real drive on the knife's edge at that stage. He got the most out of the car and the conditions. Ralf drove both times under better conditions and exploited his chances. It is good to have one car on the front row again. Also I like to compliment the team who succeded in the tasks of stripping down and rebuilding everything."


David Coulthard (8th, 1:36.156):

Kimi Raikkonen (12th, 1:36.820):

Ron Dennis, Team Principal:

Norbert Haug, Mercedes Motorsport Director:


Jacques Villeneuve (9th, 1:36.274):

Fernando Alonso (11th, 1:36.663):

Pat Symonds, Executive Director of Engineering:

Denis Chevrier, Engine Operations Manager:

Flavio Briatore, Managing Director:


Takuma Sato (4th, 1:34.897): "The conditions were very tricky but I'm pleased with my lap under the circumstances. The track has continued to get drier and faster with each car running, so I think the conditions will be good for the start of the race. The cancellation of yesterday's running was disappointing for the fans here, so I very much hope we can make up for that with a strong race this afternoon."

Jenson Button (5th, 1:35.157): "It wasn't a bad lap considering the difficult conditions. Much of the circuit is dry but there are some parts that are still very wet and it is very difficult to see them. It's not just a slight loss of grip either; it's big oversteer as I demonstrated in the chicane on my timed lap. I'm happy to be a second ahead of the McLarens though and of course both Taku and myself are ahead of both Renaults which is a good place to start fighting to retain second position in the Constructors' Championship."

David Richards, Team Principal: "I'm very pleased with the performance of both drivers in very difficult circumstances. We are now well-placed to consolidate our Championship position and achieve our objective of a strong points finish for both cars this afternoon."

Geoffrey Willis, Technical Director: "Given the circumstances with the track drying through both sessions we had very good qualifying sessions this morning. The track was completely wet for first qualifying but drying throughout so that Jenson and Takuma did well to pre-qualify in the top ten. The second session was only just dry enough for dry tyres to start but improved rapidly. There were still tricky damp patches when Takuma and Jenson ran but they were only out-qualified by drivers that ran after them. This qualifying puts us in a good position for the race and to defend our 2nd place advantage in the championship."

Shuhei Nakamoto, Honda Engineering Director:


Giancarlo Fisichella (7th, 1:36.136):

Felipe Massa (20th, No Time):

Peter Sauber, Team Principal:

Willy Rampf, Technical Director:


Mark Webber (3rd, 1:34.571): "It's been a good start to the day for us here in Suzuka. We would have liked to have had more time to prepare the cars for today but as it has turned out I am really pleased to be in 3rd position for the start of the race. My first qualifying session made it possible for me to go out much later in the second session, which has helped us. The boys have done a great job preparing the car given the little amount of track time we have had and our third position is a good morale booster. I am really looking forward to the race and although it is a long race I will be doing everything I can to finish in a points scoring position."

Christian Klien (14th, 1:38.258): "Before today's qualifying I had only managed to complete nine fast laps and those were in extreme wet conditions. I†knew the guys were going to prepare the car as best they could so it was up to me to give it my best shot in qualifying. The track was drying up this morning and this has made conditions easier to drive in. My first qualifying was ok but I am pleased with my second session when I finished fourteenth. The circuit is not easy to drive and I think that this afternoon is going to be challenging."

Mark Gillan, Head of Vehicle Performance: "Despite a lack of preparation time on track the team has done an excellent job today in delivering two strong cars and qualifying in good points contending positions. Mark drove two very clean qualifying laps which saw him secure a†well-deserved third place on the grid and Christian who has only ever completed twelve laps in total here finished fourteenth. All in all, I am very pleased with our performance so far and we are now focusing on the race with the aim of delivering some more Championship points."


Jarno Trulli (6th, 1:35.213):

Olivier Panis (10th, 1:36.420):

Mike Gascoyne, Technical Director:

Tsutomu Tomita, Team Principal:


Nick Heidfeld (16th, 1:41.953):

Timo Glock (17th, 1:43.533):

James Robinson, Director of Race and Test Engineering:

Eddie Jordan, Team Principal:


Gianmaria Bruni (18th, 1:48.069): "It has been a difficult morning, as we were out first for our qualifying run. With the track still wet but drying quickly, it was a difficult choice on tyres, but in the end, we went with shallow wets. Unfortunately, the drivers whose runs came next were able to use slicks, which gave them a big advantage. Anyway, now we will just have to see what happens in the race."

Zsolt Baumgartner (19th, No Time): "It's a shame that I had a problem in the pre-qualifying run because my first sector time was not too bad. The track conditions were tricky, as the surface was drying, but still quite wet in places. The car had some oversteer in it and when the back end slid in that corner, I was just a little too late catching it. We've been a bit unlucky this weekend. This is a very challenging circuit, I have not run here before, and the track conditions have been particularly tricky. I just hope we can have a good race this afternoon."

Paul Stoddart, Team Principal: "Sadly, neither of our drivers was able to take advantage of this morning's changeable weather conditions. Unlike qualifying for last year's French Grand Prix at Magny Cours, when rapidly changing track conditions played to our advantage, today the weather and timing just weren't with us. When Gimmi went out for his qualifying run, the surface was still sufficiently wet that the only choice was to fit Bridgestone shallow wet tyres, but with the circuit drying quickly, the drivers who followed were able to qualify on slicks."

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