JAPANESE GP - SATURDAY - QUALIFYING SESSION 1 REPORT
Black round rubber magic and a few PR stunts
Bridgestone gave Michelin a drubbing in qualifying for the Japanese GP at Suzuka - and there is little sign that the French tyres will be much better than that on the longer runs in the race. And if that is the case Ferrari can kiss goodbye to the opposition and will sail to an easy victory on Sunday, assuming off course that Toyota does not get in the way. The two Toyotas of Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli have rarely been near the front this year but at Suzuka the red and white cars were suddenly faster than speeding bullets and the obvious conclusion was that the cars must be running light fuel loads in order to impress Toyota board members, Japanese fans and car buyers in Papua New Guinea. More than likely the Toyotas will constitute mobile chicanes when it comes to the race.
That means that it is just about as good as it gets for Ferrari with Felipe Massa taking his second pole position by a couple of tenths from Michael Schumacher.
"It has been a great weekend so far for us," Michael said. "That's a very good position for us, considering the race and considering the championship. I pushed pretty hard. We have been close all weekend and in the Q2 session I managed a very good lap time. I don't know what happened to Felipe but overall we have been within a few tenths."
Massa was happy to beat his team mate.
"You never know what is going on with the others," he said. "You need to push as hard as you can," he said. "I managed to do a good lap without a single mistake and driving really on the limit. It's fantastic and we are very sure that we can be even stronger in the race."
The lap times were a lot faster than in 2005, despite all the safety changes that were made to the cars - if not the track - and it was odd to hear the drivers so full of praise for the circuit when the safety questions seem to be rather more pressing than at Monza, a track about which they are currently complaining. Yes, this is the last visit to Suzuka for a while - although seeing Bernie Ecclestone in the paddock in Suzuka is something that has not been seen for a decade so clearly talks are going on about something - but it is an odd thing. And yet, it is not because racing drivers don't complain when they like things. They love this track and accept the risks associated with it. They are not so keen on Monza.
Whatever the case, the good news was that Japan's fans may not be buying magazines but they are still turning up at the circuit. There were tens of thousands in the grandstands for qualifying. A large number bore allegiance to Honda - and very few to Toyota - and one could not help by wonder which team will come out on top on Sunday when the cars are all fuel-adjusted. It would be nice to think that Toyota was not playing with the fuel load but there is a bit of record of such things in the past: like at Suzuka last year where a light fuel load proved to be a hopeless strategy for the race but a nice shot of publicity after qualifying. On Sunday we will know for sure.
Renault may not have shown that well in the qualifying but there was always the hope that the Michelin tyres would be more durable in the race. If not all that can be hoped is that Alonso finishes third and we head off to Brazil where Michelin will get another chance to get it right. Perhaps that is not a bad idea. It tends to rain a lot in Braziul at this time of year and in the wet Michelin seems to have the advantage but one has to question the logic of a sport when tyres can decide absolutely everything. Behind Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella were Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello making this a team by team affair for the first four rows of the grid. This being Japan, Honda always makes a bit of a special effort and it will be interesting to see the race pace of the two cars. The team that has been going well with big fuel loads in recent races is BMW and so Nick Heidfeld's presence in ninth was a good sign. Robert Kubica, who is new to Suzuka, missed out on getting through to the top 10 run-off, thanks to a big moment on his final flying lap. He was disappointed but not as miserable as some of the others, notably the two McLarens that ended up 11th and 13th. We can expect them to go to the grid with tanks filled to brim.
Williams too will run the same kind of race but the teams starts with a disadvantage as although Nico Rosberg qualified 10th, Mark Webber failed to make it through Q2 into the top 10 run-off. It was close but close is not enough.
The Michelin disadvantage did not show up in the case of Tonio Liuzzi who lines up 15th on the grid, an impressive showing again for the young Italian. The Toro Rossos might have a bit of an advantage with the V10 engines on a fast track like Suzuka but that was not seen for Scott Speed, who ended his day failing to get through the Q1 session and will start the race in 19th on the grid. That is just behind the two Red Bulls which were not going well on their Michelins. David Coulthard and Robert Doornbos will start 17th and 18th.
The other man to do a good job was Christijan Albers in his Spyker, who got out of Q1 and ended up 16th on the grid. He was helped, no doubt, by his Bridgestone tyres but Suzuka is a track that shows commitment on a stopwatch and Christijan looked very committed.
Takuma Sato was also giving his all for his fans and so qualified 20th. That is one place better than normal but when you are driving around in a Super Aguri that is a big achievement.