On Friday he looked a chump, spinning away his chances. But a touch of wind put Rubens Barrichello back in play when it mattered at Silverstone, and left the beleaguered Brazilian with the last laugh.
All season he has been accused of driving like a man who knows the end of his time with Ferrari is drawing near, even though he supposedly has another year of his contract to run. His results have been patchy, and, David Coulthard's inconsistent form notwithstanding, he has provided the least convincing back-up of any second driver in a top-four team. His fortunes were not improved by an engine failure on Friday morning, but it was the spin while trying to match Michael Schumacher that afternoon that hurt.
"How's the day been?" somebody asked a Ferrari engineer. "Fine," came the reply, "apart from bloody Barrichello screwing up trying to go as fast as Michael." Poor guy. He's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Last year he got stick for trying to beat Schumacher, this year he's getting it for failing to challenge him. This afternoon he will try desperately to overturn the literal and metaphorical assertions that he just can't win.
For sure, he was lucky. A mistake on Friday normally has nasty repercussions on Saturday, when the Friday running order is reversed. Ideally, you want to run as late as possible in Saturday qualifying, to take advantage of improving track conditions. But this time things worked in Barrichello's favour.
The skies remained blue over the former airfield, but the wind began to increase as the session progressed. It reached its peak when the fastest five men from Friday came out.
This made Kimi Raikkonen another recipient of good fortune, for he too had made a mistake at Stowe Corner on Friday afternoon. His 1min 21.695sec lap for McLaren- Mercedes seemed disappointing at the time, but would be good enough for third.
"I was already changed out of my overalls before the end of qualifying, as I wasn't expecting to do the top-three interviews," the Finn revealed. "I'm very pleased with my lap as we were really struggling with the balance yesterday. We improved the car, and it felt really good. I'm confident of a good result."
It was a different story for his team-mate, Coulthard, who so desperately needed to do well amid whispers that his seat at McLaren may not be safe for 2004 after all. His disappointing 1:22.811 left him only 12th.
"I ran wide at Stowe and Club and there was just too much understeer," the Scot said. "We tried a change to the balance of the car, but it just didn't work. It's going to be very difficult to get a good result from where I am on the grid." Just to rub it in, Jarno Trulli, the next man out, posted the 1:21.381 lap for Renault that would win him a front-row starting position.
"When I crossed the line at the end of the flying lap my engineer told me I was second," the Italian said. "I couldn't believe it! This is a fantastic result, especially as this is the home race for the guys from Enstone. We've had problems with the set-up this weekend, but for my lap everything was just perfect."
Much was expected of Olivier Panis after his performances on Friday and Saturday morning, but ultimately the French veteran's day ended with big oversteer in the third sector and general disappointment as his 1:23.042 left him only 13th. Toyota's consolation came from Cristiano Da Matta's earlier best of 1:22.081, driving the spare TF103 after his intended race car developed a hydraulic leak in the warm-up.
"I was pretty surprised that it stayed good enough for sixth," he admitted later, "but the balance of the car was the best it's been all weekend."
By this time it was clear how much the wind was hurting lap times. It was blowing across some corners and creating understeer, and a tailwind down Vale was robbing cars of downforce. The Spanish hope Fernando Alonso finished a disappointed eighth. "I'm not sure if it was because of the change in track conditions, but the overall grip was not fantastic," he said.
Both BMW-Williams drivers suffered too, their cars visibly understeering. They both gave it everything, but came up short. Ralf Schumacher finished fourth on 1:21.727, Juan Pablo Montoya seventh on 1:22.214.
The German was philosophical, but the Colombian was angry. "My car was very good and stable this morning, and then it turned out to be not as positive in the warm-up and qualifying," he growled. "The car was very difficult to drive and very snappy."
So it all came down to Michael Schumacher. In the first sector he was 0.006sec quicker than his team-mate, but then he slid on to the grass on the exit to Abbey Curve, and the chance was gone. "I made a mistake," he admitted, "and, of course, driving on grass is not very good for traction. Fifth place is not the end of the world, although it will make my life more difficult."
But not as difficult as Jenson Button's. He will start from the back row, behind his fellow Briton Justin Wilson (who outqualified his Minardi team-mate Jos Verstappen despite little running time). Wilson broke his BAR's front suspension having struck a kerb at Becketts, and failed to complete his lap.
So, rather as expected here, a Ferrari will start from pole position, but not the obvious one. "I was in agony waiting for the session to end," Barrichello confessed. "But the car is fast, and Bridgestone have done a fantastic job."
The race could provide a much-needed means of rehabilitating himself, amid rumours he will be dropped by Ferrari for 2004 in favour of the test driver Felipe Massa. Should he find himself leading with his team-mate, Schumacher, second, it is more than likely he will be signalled to move over again, the ban on team orders notwithstanding. Should he resist this time, it could prove very illuminating.Reuse content