The A1-Ring is one of those fickle tracks. From the moment that Ralf Schumacher, starting first after spinning ignominiously on Friday, managed only a 1min 10.279sec best, it was clear that the track was slower than it had been when his big brother had been in the 1:07s the previous day. But it wasn't until Nick Heidfeld, running eight cars later, clipped down to a remarkable 1:09.725 lap in the spare Sauber-Petronas that anyone went faster than the BMW Williams driver.
It was a much-needed upturn in fortune for the young German, and it took his former team-mate Kimi Raikkonen to eclipse him. The world championship leader was in strong form with his 1:09.189 lap for McLaren-Mercedes, chasing a starting position decent enough to safeguard his dwindling points advantage.
Much was expected when Juan Pablo Montoya came out just after David Coulthard's efforts had sadly culminated in a disastrous 14th place, the Scot making two errors in a twitchy McLaren. Williams have come in for some silly criticism of late as the sensationalists ponder whether they can ever challenge for another world title. On Friday they were all at sea, but radical set-up changes transformed the car, and the Colombian once again had something that he could use. He fell short of Raikkonen's pace, but admitted that he had deliberately been conservative.
"I think I was as quick as the car could go in qualifying without taking any risks," he said. "It's difficult to know what fuel levels the other guys are on, but I am sure we have a very good race set-up."
So, too, is Raikkonen. "The view from the front of the grid is definitely better than from the back," he said, in reference to his unfortunate starting position in Spain recently. "We have improved the car and it is working well. I'm confident that we should have a competitive race."
Their times set the stage for Michael Schumacher's expected denouement, but things only just turned out as expected for the world champion. Approaching the Remus- kurve, his Ferrari twitched alarmingly under braking and came oh so close to spinning.
"To be honest, I'm still wondering why it didn't," he admitted, "but funnily enough I didn't lose too much time and was able to catch the slide before the apex, so I didn't run off." The rest of his lap was untroubled, and by the finish line he had aced Raikkonen by just 0.039sec.
Behind them, other challenges evaporated. The Lucky Strike BAR-Hondas of Jenson Button and Jacques Ville-neuve had been quick on Friday and again on Saturday morning, but Button had a wobble in the same place as Schumacher and failed to dislodge Heidfeld as he took seventh place, while Ville-neuve screwed up the first and last corners in an untidy lap worthy of only 12th. Mark Webber also erred, and as he finished an angry 17th, team-mate Antonio Pizzonia – the man Jaguar only a fortnight ago were considering dumping – took the glory for the team with eighth.
In the last two seasons Barrichello has been the quickest man here, but this time he went a different set-up route to Schumacher and paid the price with graining front tyres on his way to only fifth.
The Brazilian, of course, has twice been held back here by Ferrari's controversial team orders. Last year there was such an outcry against the manifestly unfair treatment meted out to him by his team that fans switched off their television sets by the thousands and the governing body moved to ban team orders.
Ferrari still assert their right to favour whichever driver they choose, but on qualifying form it seems unlikely they will have it all their own way this time. Just in case they do, the Fia president, Max Mosley, has gently reminded everyone that he will be watching events carefully.
"If you had a very suspicious pit-stop, for example," he said, "if you thought that was what a team had done, and the circumstances surrounding that would lead you to believe that the number two driver had had a bad pit-stop, you'd ask the stewards to draw the inference and they would look at all the circumstances and take a decision. If the team weren't happy with the decision they could appeal, but equally so could we if we weren't happy."
Powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone has no doubt Ferrari's tactics last year damaged the sport. "It's exactly the same as when people decided that the stock market was overpriced," he said. "It was all a matter of perception. What people started to think about Formula One was that it was bloody boring because the same team were winning, and not only that but they were taking the mickey as well."
Let's hope the last Austrian Grand Prix for the foreseeable future will be a proper race.Reuse content