Malaysian Grand Prix: Qualifying ends in confusion with five drivers facing demotion

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The Independent Online

Suppose there was a race, let's call it the Malaysian Grand Prix, and that Giancarlo Fisichella were to be fastest in qualifying, chased by Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, Michael Schumacher, Mark Webber, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Christian Klien and Ralf Schumacher. So far, so good. Pretty interesting, actually.

But now suppose that Michael and Ralf both get 10 grid-place penalties for engine changes. Oh, and that 11th and 12th place runners David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello also get them for the same reason, together with 16th fastest Felipe Massa who actually changed engines twice... Still following?

The problems begin when you start trying to drop them all back 10 positions, because nobody seemed to know the protocol and the FIA do not issue a grid until this morning. Oh boy. Just as everybody was beginning to get the hang of the new "knockout" qualifying format, it found a way to become even more complicated. Here's what most people expected to be the grid: Fisichella, Button; Rosberg, Webber; Montoya, Raikkonen; Alonso, Klien; Jarno Trulli, Jacques Villeneuve; Nick Heidfeld, Scott Speed; Michael Schumacher, Tonio Liuzzi; Christijan Albers, Tiago Monteiro; Takuma Sato, Yuji Ide; David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello; Massa, Ralf Schumacher..

If that turns out to be wrong, blame the FIA; they ratified the system that the teams came up with in the first place. Peter Sauber, back to watch his team in their BMW guise, had the most logical suggestion: "We should all change engines, then it would all be the same." It was to be hoped that the authorities managed to sort the chaos out before the television cameras start rolling for the race itself.

The three people to whom none of this mattered remotely were Fisichella, Button and Rosberg. The Italian should have been chuffed to get a slice of luck at last, after his hydraulic problems in Bahrain last week. But while he was away one of his childhood friends died. "I want to dedicate this pole to Pietro," he said simply.

Button looks in very good shape, and clearly has a fast car. When everyone was running low fuel in the second session of qualifying, he was the first man to dip below 1min 34sec and set the fastest time overall of 1:33.527.

"The team have done a fantastic job to get us on the front row of the grid," the Englishman said. "Things were looking a lot less positive yesterday when we were really struggling to find a good set-up. A lot of hard work was done overnight and tomorrow looks promising. This is always a tough race, but I'm certainly looking forward to it."

Then there was Rosberg. If anyone looks the part, it's the young German (father Keke is Finnish, his mother German). And how he revelled in what is clearly a very potent package in the Williams FW28 and its underrated Cosworth V8. Perhaps even Button will be looking over his shoulder at the car he could have been driving this year.

On only his second grand prix outing, Rosberg handled a tricky track quickly, but said: "Getting there has not been easy at all, but I have been working really well with my engineers and the team. Looking ahead, I think we will be strong and maybe have a bit of an edge, engine-wise."

Spare a thought, too, for his more experienced team-mate Mark Webber, who was a mere breath behind with 1:34.672 to Rosberg's 1:34.626. One of them had to have at least one lap more fuel on board to avoid congestion during pit stops, and therefore a heavier car, and the odds favour that being the Australian. "From what we did today," Webber said, "I think we look in pretty good shape for the race."

A lot of people would like nothing better than to see Sir Frank Williams's independent team score their first victory since Brazil 2004. Williams and his ebullient engineering partner Patrick Head are racers fuelled by a passion which overrides many of the more trivial considerations that obsess so many of their rivals. It might also be timely. There is a story going round here that Toyota are considering closing down their operation in Cologne, buying the Williams team and keeping Sir Frank on as president in charge of running the whole thing, rather as Fiat once did with Enzo Ferrari. Toyota are said to be tiring of their huge investment, especially when they appear to be struggling again after their impressive progress in 2005. Sir Frank, who whatever happens will use Toyota's engines in 2007, vehemently denies the rumour.

If his cars don't win, even he would welcome a maiden triumph for Button. But if you had to choose in this crucible of confusion, you would have to say that the McLarens look mighty menacing on the third row.