Barrichello's spin hands opportunity to Williams

British Grand Prix: Schumacher sets qualifying pace but Ferrari team-mate's mishap leaves world champion vulnerable
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a man who is tipped to be joining Jenson Button at Lucky Strike BAR-Honda next year, Justin Wilson had a pretty lousy start to his British Grand Prix weekend yesterday. The Englishman got as far as his warm-up lap when his Minardi Ford cut out, leaving him stranded by the side of the road and languishing at the bottom of the time sheets.

He was in good company, though. Rubens Barrichello got caught out when his Ferrari slid through the Luffield corner. The Brazilian had been only 0.054secs slower than his team-mate Michael Schumacher at the second sector of the lap, but as he corrected an oversteer the car twitched the other way and in a split-second the gravel claimed it, leaving the colour of his face to match the paintwork of his Ferrari and the flags that the marshals brought out while his car was recovered.

Earlier in the day Schumacher had grimaced when he saw Barrichello's engine blow up as he sped by the pits. Now the world champion looked equally disappointed. With Barrichello forced to start tomorrow's qualifying in second place, and therefore likely to run before the track reaches its peak, Schumacher knew that the chances of his team-mate riding shotgun for him in the race were limited.

Nevertheless, it was still a day for smiles at Ferrari and Bridgestone as Schumacher's lap of 1min 19.474secs withstood every assault, and left him ahead of his main rivals, the Michelin-shod Williams-BMWs of Juan Pablo Montoya and his brother Ralf.

"I am reasonably happy and this was a good day for us," the world champion said. "I am not surprised, as we had a successful test session here a few weeks ago. Today's performance is also the result of all the hard work the team did last week in getting new parts tested and ready for this weekend.

"For sure, the Silverstone track seems to suit our car," Schumacher added. "Now, I hope everything goes equally well for the rest of the weekend, so that we can pick up some points."

In the Williams camp, the drivers were divided. Schumacher Jnr, on this occasion a few thousandths of a second slower than Montoya, complained of understeer but remained upbeat about the chance of reversing Ferrari's position this afternoon.

"My car was not at all bad," he said. "I experienced some understeer, but this is something we can sort out, so it was a good Friday session. Since first qualifying is not critical for the final grid, it is important to complete a safe lap in order to ensure a good starting position for the final qualifying on Saturday.

"Ferrari seem to be very strong here, which is no surprise. I think the circuit's lay-out and today's weather conditions suit the Ferrari package pretty well. However, we have had similar gaps to Ferrari on Fridays before now, so I am not too worried."

Montoya, by contrast, sounded pessimistic about today. "My car was very well balanced and felt really good," he said. "After I struggled to get a good balance this morning I thought qualifying would be tough, but my engineers did an excellent job in setting up my car so well. But I hope there's more to come in our car because Ferrari is going to be very strong here." The engineers in both camp exuded confidence.

Things were slightly lower-key at McLaren after David Coulthard ended his day seventh behind the Renaults of Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli, and Olivier Panis's swift Toyota. Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen messed up his homework again and was only 12th.

Where Williams has reason to believe it can wrap up the front row yet again, if the weather stays good, McLaren knows it has a lot of work to do. Once again Coulthard bowed to caution, admitting: "Compared to this morning's practice [when he was quickest] I wasn't sure about the weather conditions. It was spitting with rain while they were recovering Rubens' car, but in the end the track was fairly dry and as a result I know there is more to come tomorrow."

The Scot is likely to stay on next year in the team he joined back in 1996, but patience with too many promises for tomorrow is wearing a little thin.

Raikkonen certainly didn't deliver after a series of lurid slides robbed him of speed on his lap so that he ended up a second-and-a-half slower than Schumacher. "During my run I made a mistake at Stowe," the Finn admitted. "It cost me a lot of time."

Once again, the other man to watch was the newcomer Alonso, whose 1min 19.907secs pushed his aerodynamically revised Renault to an excellent fourth place despite its horsepower handicap. Silverstone's sweeping section at Becketts is as much a test of a car's aeroefficiency as it is a driver's will, and Alonso and Renault passed. Could he have wrung anything more from it? He paused for a moment to consider, then grinned. "No, not today. That was a good lap."

Good enough to outshine team-mate Trulli yet again, though the Italian was only hundredths of a second behind. The man between them was the oldest in the field; Olivier Panis. Toyota had enjoyed a good test at the circuit the previous month, and came with aerodynamic improvements that kept the red-and-white car in play. "Two cars in the top ten," said chief designer Gustav Brunner, referring also to Cristiano da Matta's 10th fastest time, "is really a fantastic achievement." Indeed it was.

For Wilson, his first day at a British Grand Prix was an anti-climax. "I got to the end of the pit lane just past Copse on my warm-up lap and suddenly there was no power," he said. "Something was wrong with the ignition switch. I think my debut lasted about 20 metres."

While he and Coulthard were disappointed, and Ralph Firman wished he could have gone quicker, Jenson Button was relatively cheerful about ninth place. "It wasn't a perfect lap; I don't think I got the best out of it, but we have definitely made a step forward from the last race," he reported.

It was Sir Frank Williams who said that he never goes to Silverstone feeling confident. His cars have won there many times - their first win was in 1979 - but the circuit has beaten them more often than not. Things are poised nicely for a battle with Ferrari this afternoon.