Trulli’s quickest, Schumacher’s determined, Raikkonen’s throwing caution to the wind, Montoya’s fuming, Frentzen’s leaving and Villeneuve has left… Tensions are running high ahead of the championship-deciding Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Sunday.
Jarno Trulli’s quickest, Michael Schumacher’s determined, Kimi Raikkonen’s throwing caution to the wind, Juan-Pablo Montoya’s fuming, Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s leaving and Jacques Villeneuve has left… Tensions are running high ahead of the championship-deciding Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Sunday.
On Friday morning, Trulli continued his amazing Friday form from recent races by taking provisional overnight pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix. The Renault driver stole the limelight from the title contenders by topping the early free practice session.
Trulli was eighth out in the one-against-the-clock session but, despite running wide in the hairpin, did enough to come in just under a tenth clear of Williams-BMW’s Ralf Schumacher. Quickest in the opening sector, the Renault driver lost the tenth he had in hand over the German with his error halfway around the lap, but more than made up for it in the run to the finish line.
Ralf, meanwhile, deprived his brother - who needs just a point for a sixth title - of top spot by pushing his Williams-BMW ahead of the Ferrari. Ferrari and Williams-BMW are in a fierce battle for the constructors’ championship and on Friday, the siblings were separated by a mere tenth of a second.
Schumacher Snr. had been first out in the session, but did not appear to suffer as much from the green track as he had at places such as Indianapolis. Indeed, the German found sufficient grip and pace to duck under Trulli's time from free practice, which had been the best of the day to that point. Schumacher reckoned he could have been faster still, but admitted to a mistake in the second sector that cost him a valuable couple of tenths.
We adopted a rather cautious approach to this qualifying," said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. "I think we can expect to be pretty competitive tomorrow. The drivers are happy with the balance of their cars."
Schumacher was pleased to be ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, the only man who could catch him in the championship, and confident he'll go better tomorrow, when he will run third-last in qualifying: "I am happy with the handling of the car. Going out first was a slight disadvantage once again. Tomorrow's fight for pole will be good fun."
The champion-elect's presence combined with that of team-mate Rubens Barrichello and Sauber's Nick Heidfeld to limit Michelin to just seven of the top ten places - on a track where Bridgestone was expected to at least match its French rival.
Barrichello took seventh spot, but could easily have been Trulli's biggest rival. However, like his team-mate, the Brazilian made a mistake in the second sector, running too deep into the hairpin, and then compounded his error by doing the same at the chicane. Heidfeld, meanwhile, put together a clean lap to secure tenth place.
Behind the leading trio, McLaren received a confidence boost with both David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen taking the final top five places. With the Finn still clinging on to an outside chance of the title, the performance of the Mercedes-powered MP4-17D was encouraging, and Raikkonen emerged just a tenth adrift of his championship rival. Coulthard was even closer to Schumacher, having put together a clean lap.
“There is still a chance to win the drivers' title. It will not be as easy as if I had taken victory at Indy, but I enjoy a challenge! Obviously I have nothing to lose, I know what I have to do and am only focused on that, not how Michael is going and I know that the team will do everything they can,” Raikkonen said.
"Hopefully it will be quite an exciting race and we will just have to wait and see what happens. It is a tough and technical circuit, one of the longest we race at and it has a unique figure-of-eight layout. Suzuka has a great variety of corners including the famous 130R, the long and very fast left sweep, and the Spoon. The circuit is low grip in nature and we tend to use a medium-high downforce set-up. The best place to overtake is the final chicane, and the track is very light on brakes. Although there are 17 corners, they are mostly very fast and you tend to take them flat out, lifting slightly or dabbing the brakes rather than the dramatic stops of say Monza," he added.
Fernando Alonso added to the suggestion that Renault could prove to be the biggest spoiler in both championship battles, taking sixth spot ahead of Barrichello. Disappointed after another engine failure in the USGP two weeks ago, the Spaniard was untidy throughout his run, and had to catch a slide exiting the chicane, but still managed to be just 0,4secs from his team-mate's time.
Montoya and Mark Webber were the final two runners in the top ten, but both had problems to occupy their mind after the session. Dispirited by the disappointment of losing his title shot with an accident and penalty at Indianapolis, the Colombian locked up his brakes into the hairpin and coming home almost a second off Trulli's time. Webber, meanwhile, looked good through the speed traps, but had had to back off the amount of wing he was carrying to pick up pace, compromising himself through the twisty sections.
Local hero Takuma Sato narrowly missed the top ten on his return to F1. According to reports, Villeneuve lost interest in BAR Honda after the team decided to drop him from its 2004 lineup and decided not to participate in the Japanese Grand Prix. His successor, Sato, grabbed his chance to race on Sunday and lapped just a tenth slower than Heidfeld. The Japanese driver comprehensively out-drove team-mate Jenson Button, who was still trying to regain lost track time after an engine failure in free practice, and ended the day half a second adrift.
Sato's performance was also good enough for Honda to salvage some pride from a session that appeared to be going the way of rivals Toyota. Olivier Panis and Cristiano da Matta never threatened the top ten, but put in respectable times, only dropping to 13th and 14th at the last moment. While the Frenchman was in form, however, his Brazilian team-mate - making his first appearance at Suzuka, was a lot more untidy, taking kerb and more in his attempt to wrest a time out of his TF103.
The two red-and-white cars were separated from Sato by Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who is widely expected to retire from F1 racing after Sunday’s grand prix. The German had to wrestle the C22 around the complex circuit with handfuls of oversteer.
Button eventually found himself sandwiched between two fellow Britons, as Justin Wilson took 15th for Jaguar and Ralph Firman 17th for Jordan. Wilson, knowing that he needs at least another strong performance to give himself a shot at the second Jaguar seat next season, was perhaps a little conservative on his first qualifying run at Suzuka, posting a time almost a second slower than team-mate Webber, but Firman proved to be the quicker of the two Jordans, as he put his track knowledge to good use. Team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, like Frentzen, had what appeared to be a largely gripless car, and wound up one place and three-tenths slower than Firman.
As expected, the two Minardis brought up the rear of the field, with Jos Verstappen comfortably faster than rookie team-mate Nicolas Kiesa, who still found half a second on his extra testing time, but was two-tenths slower than he had managed in free practice.