F1's smashing start to the year

Button must hope Ferraris are light on fuel after thrills and spills of new qualifying format

If it transpires that the two Ferraris ahead of Jenson Button on the grid were running lighter than his Honda in yesterday's innovative qualifying session, he could be nicely placed for this afternoon's Bahrain Grand Prix. "If" is the most overused word in the Formula One lexicon, but the new format of qualifying could have been designed to accommodate it.

If only Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren had not crashed dramatically during the first 15- minute session... His demise was occasioned by the failure of a right rear-suspension component, and the first 15-minute session was red-flagged. As he still toys with the idea of going to Ferrari in 2007, this could hardly have been a less auspicious start for the Finn, and was a bitter blow to a team who have worked day and night since October towards the new season.

When the session resumed, strategies went out the window as the remaining 21 runners found themselves scratching round nose to tail. Ralf Schumacher end up as the fastest of the slowest six runners, so together with Christijan Albers and Tiago Monteiro in their Midlands, the rookie Yuji Ide and Takuma Sato in their new Super Aguris, and Raikkonen, he was ejected from the proceedings under the new knockout system.

By comparison the second 15-minute session was quite tame, only Keke Rosberg's son Nico spinning his Williams and spoiling his chances of getting through to the 20-minute top- 10 shoot-out. The rookie German joined Jacques Ville-neuve, David Coulthard, Jarno Trulli, Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed back in the pits.

That left Button, the world champion Fernando Alonso (who had up to this point set the fastest time of 1min 31.215sec), Juan Pablo Montoya, Giancarlo Fisichella, Nick Heidfeld, Felipe Massa, Michael Schumacher, Christian Klien, Mark Webber and Rubens Barrichello. Out they all went for the final 20-minute thrash, but now their earlier times were erased and they started off with the level of fuel with which they intend to start the race.

It was immediately clear that the Ferraris were in good shape as Massa and Schumacher ran quickly, but Button was there or thereabouts for most of the session.

When the final stops for fresher tyres were done, Schumacher banged in the lap of 1:31.431 that would earn him a 65th pole position and write yet more motor racing history as he equalled the late Ayrton Senna's record for poles. He described it as "a wonderful surprise".

Button's response of 1:31.549 was not good enough to beat Massa's earlier 1:31.523, but left him third. Massa then improved to 1:31.478 to retain his front-row position. Was he running lighter than Schumacher, or was it a genuine performance? We have to wait for this afternoon to find out, but one of the Ferraris must be running lighter than the other just to stagger their pit stops. The bigger question is whether they had similar levels of fuel to their rivals.

Alonso had a disappointing final session, only trimming down to 1:31.702 at the end to snatch fourth. "The qualifying was very busy, like we expected," the Spaniard said, "and as I had said before the weekend, it didn't change much for me because the aim was still to complete three quick laps during the hour. I made a mistake on my first timed lap at the end of the session, and that meant I had to do another one. Obviously the tyres weren't in such a good condition by then."

With Montoya fifth (1:32.164), Barrichello starts three places behind his new team-mate Button, with a lap one second slower. Given the exigency of the new format, however, and the possibility that Barrichello was carrying more fuel, that may not mean much. It's early days yet, and the jury is still out on the new system, but the BMW boss Mario Theissen had no doubts. "This is the best qualifying format that we have ever had," he enthused. "That was really great, an hour of intense action. This is exactly what was missing in recent years." He's probably right. It was rough and tumble, it was exciting, and it threw up some wild cards.

Victory for Button would be a nice means of ushering in F1's brave new 2.4 litre V8 world, but can he really get the monkey off his back here? That is the key question, and one that is increasingly onerous for a man with more than 100 grand prix starts and no victories. He is as tired of it as Doug Sanders was when people kept asking him how it felt to fumble The Open on a short putt back in 1970. Some things are best forgotten, and Button's focus is forwards, not backwards.

"I'm reasonably happy," he said. "We had a good qualifying strategy but it was difficult to be consistent and get good, clean runs because of the track conditions. Looking at how the new qualifying panned out, for me it was very exciting. It was non-stop for me in the car and it must have been great for the fans watching at home.

"It should be a great race, and we'll see how everyone's fuel strategies play out."

If the Ferraris were light, his chances look good. If they were not, Honda and Renault might find their seasonal aspirations challenged. And Button might find himself denied the top step of the podium once again.

TOP 10 ON THE GRID

1. Michael Schumacher Ferrari 1min 31.431sec

2. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:31.478

3. Jenson Button Honda 1:31.549

4. Fernando Alonso Renault 1:31.702

5. Juan Pablo Montoya McLaren 1:32.164

6. Rubens Barrichello Honda 1:32.579

7. Mark Webber Williams 1:33.006

8. Christian Klien Red Bull 1:33.112

9. Giancarlo Fisichella Renault 1:33.496

10. Nick Heidfeld BMW Sauber 1:33.926

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