Ecclestone fumes at rain-dance charade

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The Independent Online

Bernie Ecclestone found another reason to be critical at Silverstone yesterday but, rather than any inherent shortcoming in the venue, it was because the threat of rain created a farcical and unacceptable situation in pre-qualifying.

Bernie Ecclestone found another reason to be critical at Silverstone yesterday but, rather than any inherent shortcoming in the venue, it was because the threat of rain created a farcical and unacceptable situation in pre-qualifying.

The reverse of that session's lap times decided the running order for qualifying, and everyone began slowing down to give themselves early running positions as it seemed increasingly likely that qualifying would be spoiled later on by rain - those who wanted to be fastest later needed to be slowest now. Their antics gave a new meaning to blue-sky thinking. Pre-qualifying should have been the one session of the day when the spectators got to see the cars running flat out, but instead they went slower than they did during Tuesday's demonstration run in London. The difference was that nobody had to pay to see them on that occasion. It was tempting to suggest the FIA should approve technology that gives the driver an electric shock if his lap speed falls below a predetermined target. Or perhaps fine their team principals $1m.

It was all too much for Ecclestone, who hates the single-lap qualifying system and had lobbied hard for a return to the old free-for-all, four-run system for this very race. Disharmony among the teams thwarted that, and he went on the attack immediately after qualifying was over. "It was all very stupid," he said. "But it's nothing to do with those involved, it's the system. The system needs changing and we will try and change it."

Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, was unrepentant about the strategy his drivers adopted: "Our weather forecast predicted rain for the second half of the qualifying session, therefore we did not want to risk being among the last out on track. We tried to do it in such a way the other teams would not understand our intentions, but they did the same thing anyway. It was a strategic drive."

Rubens Barrichello, last year's winner for Ferrari, admitted: "I did run deliberately wide at Vale to get a slower time in pre-qualifying. It seemed a nicer way of doing it than just going slowly. I don't see anything wrong with what I and many other drivers did. It is a result of the qualifying format... I think we need to make the format better." His team-mate Michael Schumacher was also candid: "For strategic reasons we chose not to look too good."

Ironically, the pain of the "after you Claud" session led to the pleasure of a great qualifying hour, but it was an anxious time for home hero Jenson Button, who had set the fastest prequalifying time and thus would run last in qualifying. He watched proceedings with an uncertain smile while conferring with his race engineer, Craig Wilson.

Nick Heidfeld ran first, and after Giancarlo Fisichella elected not to run because an engine change the previous day would in any case have cost him 10 grid places, Christian Klien, Mark Webber and Marc Gene completed the first quintet before the ad break. Juan Pablo Montoya was the first potential top runner, followed by Michael Schumacher who had his third spin of the day in prequalifying. The champion had no trouble beating the Colombian's 1m 19.378s lap with 1m 18.718s. Takuma Sato failed to beat either of them, but then Barrichello grabbed the initiative with 1m 18.305s and David Coulthard posted the 1m 19.148s that would give him sixth place on the grid.

Now the clouds grew heavier as the Minardis went out to do their thing at seemingly excruciatingly slow pace, and it all began to make a kind of sense. As the Ferraris sat first and second, what had been irritating had suddenly become nail-biting. Would Button be watered down?

Zsolt Baumgartner, Gianmaria Bruni and Cristiano da Matta did their laps, and then Spanish star Fernando Alonso jumped up to third with 1m 18.811s, but he too had changed his engine, so would eventually lose 10 places. That left the focus firmly on McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, quick all weekend. The monosyllabic Finn did not disappoint, dipping below Barrichello's time with 1m 18.233s to take the third pole position of his career and push Schumacher off the front row.

Now Button's worries increased, as the skies darkened further. Jarno Trulli lapped in 1m 18.715s, before interlopers Giorgio Pantano, Olivier Panis and Felipe Massa did their runs. That set the scene for great theatre as Button went out, to the accompaniment of the fans' air horns and cheers, but he could not quite summon front-row pace and had to settle for third with 1m 18.580s.

In the end it was all good stuff, and it was a welcome distraction from the feud between Ecclestone and Sir Jackie Stewart, president of the beleaguered British Racing Drivers' Club which owns Silverstone. But the row over pre-qualifying was not the only controversy. Massa was infuriated after Panis had driven so tardily on his slowing-down lap that he baulked the Brazilian, costing him a likely ninth place on the grid.

"It's unbelievable!" Massa exploded. "I have told Panis I cannot understand what he was doing. He must have seen me and, even if he didn't, he had to know at the speed he was going that another car would be coming up behind him soon. The team should have been telling him. Fine, if you are going slowly to save fuel, brake on the straight and keep out of the way. He didn't do that. He braked on my line. Without that I could have been ninth. It's really not fair." An apologetic Panis then had his time deleted, and will start from the back with Massa's team-mate, Fisichella.

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