EUROPEAN GP - SATURDAY - QUALIFYING SESSION 1 REPORT
Schumacher takes his own medicine
Michael Schumacher's amazing form in recent weeks looked like it was going to continue at the Nurburgring on Saturday until the final minutes of the final qualifying session when Fernando Alonso gave the Ferrari star a little of his own medicine. Alonso recorded a lap which was half a second faster than he had gone in the Q2 session when, in theory, the cars are running with their lightest loads of fuel. In Q3 the teams add fuel for the race and so should go more slowly than they did in Q2. It was thus stunning to see Alonso go much quicker. What does it mean? There are two possible messages: Alonso may have been sandbagging to snare Ferrari into a race strategy that underestimated Renault, or Fernando was running with a very low fuel load hoping that in the race he could use his track position to mess up Ferrari's strategy and come out ahead - just as Schumacher did to him at Imola.
It was an action-packed qualifying with a bizarre red light which came out for no reason at all and a delay that was needed to allow the timekeepers to sort out some problem. No doubt eventually we will be told what happened but it was certainly a big disruption for teams at a critical moment.
For some it did not matter much. Franck Montagny took up where Yuji Ide left off and began his qualifying with a spin in his Super Aguri. Alonso ended the session at the top of the timesheets with a best lap of 1m31.138s, which was a tenth of a second ahead of Schumacher. Then came Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Nick Heidfeld. Obviously BMW likes to make a good impression at home and so this was not really a surprise. Down at the back there were no surprises either as the two Super Aguris and the two Midlands were joined by Scott Speed's and a rather disappointing Christian Klien in his Red Bull-Ferrari.
The start of the Q2 session saw Ralf Schumacher having a spin as he tried to bang in a quick time but he recovered well to take the second best time a few minutes later. Then Raikkonen went round with the fastest lap of the weekend up to that point, a 1m30.203s which seemed to indicate that McLaren was in the fight. And then Michael went around in 1m30.013s and in the final minutes of scramble, when these things really matter, Alonso recorded a 1m30.336s. There was further disappointment down at Renault where once again things went horribly wrong for Giancarlo Fisichella as he failed to make the final 10. The competition was intense with the top 11 men all covered by a second and several others who should have been in the fight as well. After the session Fisichella was clearly incensed and stomped down to the BMW Sauber pit to shout at Jacques Villeneuve. It seemed a fairly pointless visit but perhaps showed just how edgy things are these days for the Roman, who is no doubt beginning to worry about his future with the team. The flurry of times ended up with Ralf Schumacher being the man who was bumped along with Nico Rosberg, Fisichella, David Coulthard, a slightly disappointing Nick Heidfeld and Tonio Liuzzi.
The stage was thus set for the final Q3 run-offs with the teams making their decisions about fuel loads for the race. And then began the final 20 minutes of excitement with cars burning off fuel and getting quickish laps in the bag. Michael Schumacher did what looked like a sensible time at 1m32.530s and Massa was behind him. It was not until only eight minutes remained that things started to get serious with Button banging in a quick lap to take the high ground on the timesheet with a 1m31.715s. A minute of two later we saw Alonso come through with a 1m30.454s, a time that was all but matched seconds later by Schumacher. The difference was two one-hundredths of a second with the Spaniard ahead. Massa came up to third again and Rubens Barrichello slipped in behind Button in fifth.
So it was all down to the last blasts and in these Fernando set the fastest time in the first sector only to be matched by Michael. In the second sector Alonso kept up the pace but Michael was two-tenths down. And that was all that was needed. Fernando stopped the clocks at 1m29.819s, the fastest time of the entire weekend while Michael was second with a 1m30.028s lap. Massa was third quickest four-tenths off Michael and Barrichello was up to fifth. The interesting thing about that is how much fuel the Honda was carrying because at Imola Rubens's good qualifying proved to be a function of his fuel load rather than outright performance. There was then a big gap back to Kimi Raikkonen and that smelled of a big fuel load because the McLaren obviously had more pace than it was showing. Jenson Button was sixth which also suggested more fuel ahead of Jarno Trulli, who was probably running light as this is a trend at Toyota these days, and Villeneuve. Montoya was ninth with what looked like a big fuel load and Mark Webber rounded off the runners with what must be a very big fuel load as his engine change meant that he must add 10 places on the grid and so will start 20th. The only logical strategy from such a position is to fill the car to the brim and go for a long strategy. It is a strategy which will also probably be seen from Ralf Schumacher who, starting from 11th place, will be in a position to be more flexible.
Michael Schumacher said afterwards that Alonso's pace did not surprise him because of the many things that one can do in qualifying but the German's body language suggested disappointment. Michael likes to be in control of strategies and having Fernando ahead of him, means that it could be the other way around.