Button raises Honda hopes

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The Independent Online

Jenson Button has never had a better chance of winning his first grand prix than here in Japan today. The 25-year-old Englishman was beaten to pole position by a mere 0.035sec by his old BMW Williams team-mate Ralf Schumacher, after the best qualifying session of the year during which the weather gods threw some random conditions into the mix.

After rain in the morning's practice sessions this glorious track was damp but just beginning to think of drying when qualifying began. First David Coulthard set the pace. Then a bit later on the hardy and sizeable crowd went into screeching raptures and an orgy of flag-waving as the local hero Takuma Sato stole the initiative for BAR-Honda.

They went a bit quiet shortly afterwards when Coulthard's team-mate, Christian Klien, snatched the honours away, but then Ralf Schumacher pushed his Toyota to a 1min 46.108sec lap. This was not Toyota's first pole position, as Schumacher's team-mate, Jarno Trulli, had been fastest in qualifying at Indianapolis in June, but this was a genuine performance, whereas Trulli's had been a no-fuel wonder to offset Toyota's tyre dramas.

Button went out immediately after Schumacher Jnr, and though he set new marks for the second and third sectors of the lap he came up ever so slightly short. He was nevertheless delighted. "It's fantastic to be on the front row of the grid for Honda's home race," Button said. "I'm very happy with the position, if not the lap itself. The car had massive understeer and was difficult to drive. But we have set it up well for the race. We have a good strategy and I hope to go really well."

Giancarlo Fisichella's subsequent effort for Renault fell short of these two, albeit not by much, as he lapped in 1:46.276. But immediately after the Italian's run the heavens opened and drowned out the hopes of the final quartet: Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen (who in any case had a 10-place penalty to take into account after yet another Mercedes-Benz engine failure during practice on Friday) and Juan Pablo Montoya. They will respectively line up 14th, 16th, 17th and 18th, and all will have steep mountains to climb this afternoon even if, as locals expect, the weather is more clement.

This turn of fortune for those usually favoured by success gave some others their chance to shine. Besides Klien, Narain Karthikeyan was a hero of the hour. Only Fisichella had spoiled a great story in the morning when he just beat the Indian to the fastest time in the second session, and in qualifying Karthikeyan put team-mate Tiago Monteiro in the shade. The Portuguese driver has been getting the upper hand of late, but this time Monteiro spun at the Degner curve on his warm-up lap. By contrast, Karthikeyan pushed his Jordan-Toyota to the 11th- fastest time.

This topsy-turvy afternoon is in keeping with a meeting that is as alive with intrigue as championship-deciding Brazil was flat. Even the most diligent paddock sleuths have failed to winkle out the identity of a proposed new 11th team, who will be given Honda's new V8 engines. The Japanese Dome company, the former Formula One racer Aguri Suzuki's Super Aguri team, even the former drivers Jean Alesi and Michael Andretti, have all been suggested.

But all that is certain is that Honda are so desperate to offset customer anger at dropping Sato in favour of Rubens Barrichello for 2006 that they are prepared to help the team to gain a foothold in order to secure him a ride.

A win for Button would be more than apposite. It would be a reward for British American Tobacco before they disappear at the season's end after creating the team out of Tyrrell in 1999, and it would also usher in a new era of racing for Honda, to whom nothing is more important than the power of dreams.

McLaren and Renault seek to spoil all that, of course, in their battle for the constructors' world championship, but with two Japanese teams on the front row the hyper-enthusiastic Suzuka fans have never had it so good.

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