"It's going to be very close here," David Coulthard suggested on Friday, pointing out the parity between McLaren and Ferrari this year. "It's going to be all about who makes the best use of the tyres, and who gets track position."
And so it proved, though it was not quite as close for the Scot as he would have hoped. Michael Schumacher aced him by just under half a second to take the 24th pole position of his career, and somehow Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello squeezed into the gap between them. Formula One is getting tight at the top these days.
On the face of it, it was business as usual for Coulthard in Barcelona. Had you been on Mars this past week it is just possible you might not have heard of the air crash in Lyon on Tuesday from which Coulthard, his fiancÃ©e Heidi Wichlinski and his personal trainer Andy Matthews escaped without harm, but in which the two pilots, David Saunders and Daniel Worley, were killed.
But scrutiny of the British GP winner's mien - and there has been much scrutiny - certainly did not reveal any trace of the strain he has had to bear. Coulthard has been Mr Cool, confessing the relief he felt to be able to leave other matters behind - the aftermath of the accident and the welter of newfound interest in his welfare - whenever he jumped into the cockpit of his McLaren-Mercedes. It has afforded him a release from the pressure, and he used it well on Friday to end the day just shy of Schumacher.
At that stage McLaren could not be sure what Ferrari had up their sleeve for qualifying, but halfway through Saturday afternoon's grid-forming session they found out.
Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen had brief moments in the spotlight as the earliest men to set the quickest time, to be replaced in their turn by Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher, but then Barrichello got serious and was sitting on pole position until Hakkinen set the new mark at 1min 21.367sec.
This seemed to be the pre-Silverstone Hakkinen, quick, confident and committed. Michael Schumacher was close, true, two-tenths, then one-tenth, shy, but as yet there was no cigar for the man who leads the chase for the Finn's title. But then came the second runs and Michael was twitching the red car round with that inimitable brand of insouciant super-confidence that, like Hakkinen's, had seemed to be missing at Silverstone. And there was the lap time: 1:20.974. Pole, comfortably.
"If you got everything right then the lap would be good," Schumacher said. "Certainly it's nice to be on pole for the first time this season. The start will of course be important, because it's easier to plan your tactics and control the race from the lead. But we have proved this season that we can also win from behind."
Hakkinen's on-track response brought the gap down to .78sec, but the track had sneaked past its best. It was a great lap too from the Finn, but the timing was just a shade awry. He was happier with his McLaren than he had been on Friday, but said, "This is not an easy car to drive, physically or otherwise. And I didn't get a clear run until the very end."
Coulthard, meanwhile, had been in trouble. A misfire hurt his first run, as his Mercedes V10 lost fuel pressure. Back in the garage the Scot waited patiently. After the week he had just had, it was a minor problem. But it sapped his momentum just when he needed it, crushed a good lap when he had set the fastest time for the first sector. He whittled his time down to 1: 21.422, but it wasn't enough to catch Schumacher or Hakkinen, nor to dislodge Barrichello, whose own shot at pole had looked good on his last run until he messed up the second sector.
"This isn't a true reflection of what we were capable of today," Coulthard said, the disappointment etched on his face. "I'm quite sure that I could have made the front row but for that fuel problem."
To get round it, McLaren ran the car with more fuel, and the extra weight compromised its performance a little. "We'll see what happens in the race," Coulthard added. "Don't forget I won the British GP from fourth on the grid."
The fixation with Coulthard sadly overshadowed another stellar performance, that of Ralf Schumacher, who made the most of the continuingly impressive Williams BMW package to chase the aces with fifth fastest time, only six tenths behind big brother. BMW may be in big trouble elsewhere, but their return to Formula One has been one of the success stories of the season. The young German had the legs on his new team-mate, Jenson Button, this time, the Briton nevertheless doing a good job to set 11th fastest time and find himself in the zone where only small improvement would have reaped a significant reward.
Between them lie Ville-neuve, yet again on feisty form in the improving BAR-Honda; the disappointed Benson & Hedges Jordan duo of Jarno Trulli and Heinz-Harald Frentzen; local hero Pedro de la Rosa in the Orange Arrows; and Eddie Irvine's Jaguar.
Somehow, close though all the times were, that peculiarly Spanish ennui seemed to settle over qualifying like a pall, evoking memories of last year's race, which was universally deemed to be the dullest of the season. Such was the general torpor in the paddock that Damon Hill's future became a topic for further discussion, given that this was the first of the European races this year that the former champion has not attended.
Will he manage Minardi? Will he be the boss when Toyota's F1 challenge hits the tracks in 2002? Nobody knew, but the speculation helped to pass the time until a Jordan team member snapped: "He didn't want to be here last year. Why would he want to go through all that agony again?"
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