MALAYSIAN GP - SATURDAY - QUALIFYING SESSION 1 REPORT
Fizzy pops up!
Giancarlo Fisichella has had a difficult time so far this season but an engine change after Bahrain, allowed because his car failed to finish for other reasons, meant that the Italian went to steamy Malaysia with the potential to outshine his rivals. And so he did in the final minutes of the qualifying session as he took pole position away from Jenson Button by two-tenths of a second. Button was not far behind him on that final run but could not quite beat the Renault and so must start second on the grid for the second race in a row. An impressive third place went to Nico Rosberg, the man of the moment in F1, but the big gap between the Williams driver and the two men on the front row suggests that he is running with a heavier fuel load as in the early part of the final session it was Williams which dominated with Mark Webber and Rosberg one-two. In the end Webber ended up fourth after Michael Schumacher was sent down the grid because of an engine change. He nearly matched Rosberg's qualifying time but with a 10-place penalty he will start in the midfield. It was a difficult practice for Ferrari with three of the four Ferrari-engined cars needing engine changes in the course of the weekend which will compromise them all in the race.
Throughout practice the Williams-Cosworths were obviously quick and in the end it was Rosberg who was third on the grid, an impressive effort for a new boy in Formula 1 and particularly so as he had never before visited the Sepang circuit. Perception means a great deal in F1 today and Nico has certainly made an impressive start to his F1 career. One could point out that he did more than 11,000km of testing in the winter, which is a big advantage enjoyed by few novices, but the fact is that so far Nico has delivered.
Michael Schumacher was fourth, just a few hundredths slower than Rosberg but we all knew that he would have to drop 10 places on the grid because of his engine change and so he will line up 14th. Also within a blink of Rosberg was Webber and the question there is whether the Australian has a bigger fuel load than Rosberg or vice versa. It will not be much difference but it may have made a difference in qualifying and may make a difference in the race as well as one driver will be able to go longer than the first. And that could be a very important difference given the overall speed of the Williams cars.
The McLarens look strong too with Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen lining up fifth and sixth on the grid, the two men very equally matched but three-tenths slower than the two Williams men. Given the pace of the McLarens in Bahrain, the team must be seen as a strong challenger in the race, although on outright speed (in the second session of qualifying when theoretically the cars are running at their lightest) the fastest man was Button ahead of Fisichella. In the early 15 minutes of the qualifying Montoya and Raikkonen were 1-2 and the signs are that they are running with heavier fuel loads and so much be watched carefully in the race. Fernando Alonso too must not be underestimated as he was one of the fastest cars until the final 20 minutes when he suddenly dropped back, a sign that the car is either laden down with fuel or there is a problem.
The top 10 was actually only nine cars because although Ralf Schumacher went fast enough to qualify to run in the session he then suffered an engine failure and did not appear. This meant that he would drop to the back of the field because the failure occurred after the start of qualifying. The disappearance of the two Schumacher brothers meant that Christian Klien moves up to eighth on the grid in his Red Bull.
The complicated penalty format in qualifying meant that there was considerable confusion as to who would drop to where on the grid, because Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello had to each take a penalty of 10 places on the grid. In theory therefore Schumacher should drop from fourth to 14th. However, there is an argument that because Ralf dropped out after the start of qualifying his penalty applies after those who had penalties from earlier problems and started qualifying with the penalty already decided. There is no official grid until Sunday morning because of parc ferme and any drivers who change their cars overnight must go to the back with Ralf and line up in number order, with the lowest number first. Massa will likely to this and will start 21st.
Thus the likely grid will see Jarno Trulli jumping up to ninth from 13th. Jacques Villeneuve moving up in his BMW from 14th to 10th. Team mate Nick Heidfeld will be 11th with the Toro Rossos of Scott Speed 12th. Michael Schumacher will be 13th with Tonio Liuzzi 14th. Behind him, if theory becomes reality, will be Christijan Albers and Tiago Monteiro in the two Midlands, the two Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Yuji Ide, and the demoted duo of David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello. With Felipe and Ralf on the back row.
The variables involved, beyond basic grid position are such that any attempt at guessing what will happen in the race seems, on Saturday evening, a folly. There are questions of fuel loads, tyre durability, engine performance at different temperatures, track position and (probably) monkeys running across the race track as well. What we do know is that it is going to be an exciting race, but we just don't know why it will be!