After the rain and the politics had done their best to tarnish the British motorsport public's enthusiasm for Grand Prix racing, qualifying came as blessed relief. For an hour it mattered not how muddy the car parks were, nor whose fault it was that the race had been switched from its July date to the time of year when the chances of appalling weather rated short odds. Unless, of course, you were one of the thousands of drenched spectators who had become casualties of Bernie Ecclestone's war with Silverstone and the British Racing Drivers' Club and had been either urged not to attend. Then it mattered very much.
Ironically, qualifying escaped the rain. But teams were then faced with a track that would inevitably get drier as the session progressed. It became a poker game. Run too soon, and you risked wasting laps that would be quicker if delayed by another 15 minutes. But if it rained, you would have missed the golden opportunity of a good lap while the track was reasonably dry.
Jos Verstappen set the ball rolling in his Orange Arrows, but the Dutchman's success was to mark but one of 18 occasions on which different drivers occupied pole position. Team-mate Pedro de la Rosa was the first to depose him, followed by Rubens Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Mika Hakkinen, Barrichello again twice, and then a veritable flurry of names appeared at the top of the timesheets. David Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve, Coulthard again, Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen again; all heard good news over their onboard radios, but only the Finn retained the accolade for as long as it took him to return his McLaren Mercedes to its garage.
Still the track continued to get better, setting up the dying moments for a high-speed traffic jam. With fewer than 10 minutes left Villeneuve took a chance; all that traffic was bound to result in a yellow caution flag at best, possibly even a red flag. It was worth a gamble. Suddenly, the BAR-Honda was back on pole after another explosive lap. But Villeneuve was on borrowed time. With four minutes left all hell broke loose.
Jaguar barely had time to gasp as Eddie Irvine slapped his car on to pole, than he was deposed by Verstappen. Then came Frentzen. But just as Eddie Jordan was reaching for the champagne, Barrichello dipped three thousandths of a second under the German's time.
It would, of course, be churlish to note that Barrichello set his time when the yellow caution flag was being displayed after Verstappen's efforts to squeeze more speed had resulted in temporary disconnection for his Arrows.
"I'm really happy with this,'' Barrichello beamed, scratching his new goatee. "I like driving in these conditions. I didn't know what to expect because in testing last week I only drove in the wet, and when it was briefly dry yesterday I only did two laps.''
If the Brazilian was happy, Michael Schumacher was not. Two small changes to his Ferrari's set-up stole critical milliseconds. When the chequered flag came out, he was fractionally the wrong side of the finish line and lost the chance for a final flier. "I'm not satisfied with my grid position,'' the championship leader growled. "But it's impossible to predict what will happen tomorrow.'' Both drivers were watched by Luca di Montezemolo, but the Ferrari president was soon homeward bound. "I just cannot watch the race anywhere but at home, by myself," he said. "Even if my 23-year-old son is with me, he is not allowed to ask questions!''
Frentzen was delighted by the upturn in Benson & Hedges Jordan's fortunes, and credited his newly-born daughter, Lea.
Hakkinen seemed bemused. He lost one lap when he sportingly backed off in order not to hold up Barrichello on what turned out to be his pole-winning lap, then lost a second chance for a variety of reasons. "I was not able to push flat out,'' he said, later blaming understeer. "I had to slow down on a couple of occasions. That's why I am not smiling, because if I had a 100 per cent clear situation I would have been quicker.'' When Jarno Trulli spun his Jordan, the Finn had to back off for the resultant yellow flags. Without that, and despite his set-up problem, he felt he could still have taken pole position. Team-mate Coulthard blamed traffic when his final effort came up short.
Despite missing all of the morning session after spinning and then being hit by Eddie Irvine's Jaguar, Jenson Button achieved his ambition of outqualifying team-mate Ralf Schumacher in his first F1 outing on a track he knows well. "It's going to be an amazing feeling to start my home race alongside Michael Schum-acher,'' he said. "Better still to be starting ahead of Ralf.''
So what will happen if the weather gods continue to frown this afternoon? Well, you might have thought things couldn't get much worse for the poor spectators, but there is plenty of precedent for wet races to be stopped well before their scheduled number of laps. Here in 1975 Emerson Fittipaldi was flagged off the winner after 56 of the 67 laps as half the field lay in the wall at Club Corner. The prize for the furthest distance travelled for the shortest, rain-curtailed race belongs to the Australian GP in 1991, in which Ayrton Senna needed to complete only 14 of the 81 laps. But conversely, rain during the April-run GP of Europe at Donington Park in 1993 created one of the most sensational Grands Prix of all time. From fifth place heading for the first corner, Senna drove one of the greatest races of his career to pass Michael Schumacher, Michael Andretti, Karl Wendlinger and Damon Hill, before taking the lead from Alain Prost - by the end of the opening lap.
The thought may sustain Michael Schumacher during his pre-race preparations.Reuse content