Their cars almost were not ready for the first qualifying session yesterday afternoon, so the smiles of Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa owed as much to relief when they wrapped up the front row of the starting grid for the second race in succession as they did to satisfaction that their advantage remained after the United States GP at Indianapolis two weekends ago.
The German's car caught fire in morning practice due to an exhaust heatshield failure, while the Brazilian's had developed a clutch problem. They were repaired only just in time.
While they celebrated, Fernando Alonso again donned the new mask he has been obliged to get used to of late and said he was satisfied to have done his best in securing third place. Jenson Button, meanwhile, sank further into despair after being booted out in the first qualifying session for the second time in four races. If you don't think there is a crisis at Honda, just look at the Englishman's 19th place (corrected to 18th after ninth fastest Nico Rosberg lost 10 places because of an engine change) and his team-mate Rubens Barrichello's 14th.
Renault came to their home track intent on resuming their authority after Indianapolis, where Ferrari's performance had generally been put down to Michelin's conservatism. But all day it was clear that Bridgestone had also made some steps forward.
Jean Todt, Ferrari's sporting director, rather robustly, and amusingly, denied newspaper rumours that the American success had liberated another £20 million of development funding in Maranello with some welcome candour - "It's bullshit. Don't make me answer to third-rate speculations. It is absolutely not true" - but it was clear that the red cars had made further significant progress.
When the third qualifying session began, shortened from 20 to 15 minutes to make things more interesting, there was a little piece of theatre as Alonso and Schumacher left the pit lane side-by-side, with the Spaniard leading until the German slipped ahead at the Adelaide hairpin. "It's important to be in front, to make sure you get the maximum number of laps, give yourself some margin if you have a problem," Schumacher explained.
Later Alonso repassed him in the same spot as they burned off their intended race fuel loads ready for the ultimate grid shootout, and when each switched to fresh tyres for their final assault it was Alonso who left the pits first. But Schumacher had the last laugh with a lap of 1min 15.493sec. Alonso was close behind on 1:15.785, but right at the very last moment Massa sped over the start/finish line to stop the clocks in 1:15.510 after a very good lap that crucially nudged Alonso off the front row.
"It was interesting to have our little race going," Schumacher smiled as he celebrated his 68th pole position, referring to the dice with Alonso. "They should give points for this. I'm very happy to be on pole, and I'd like to dedicate this to our special Englishman Nigel Stepney, whose wife just gave birth.
"The fire this morning didn't really help as we were planning to do another couple of set-up options, but the mechanics did a superb job and we managed to get on to the front row. That's pretty impressive."
Alonso looked philosophical. "We tried to be up front in the queue for the fuel-burning laps and that went to plan," he said, "but then Michael overtook me. Overall, the important thing after Indianapolis is to be back in the top three. Indy was a bad weekend but we came back here happier and more confident.
"The grip and balance of the car was OK and we didn't really change the set-up too much from the beginning to the end, but in practice this morning the Michelins were dominant a little bit, and this afternoon, with the increased temperature, the Bridgestones were a bit better. I did the maximum and I'm happy to be third. We saw in the times that it was not possible to touch Ferrari over one lap, so third was the best possible position."
For Button, who had begun the year expecting to challenge the Spaniard for his crown, 18th/19th was about the worst. "I had my run ruined by traffic today in the first session, which is obviously very disappointing," he said. "Having said that, the car just wasn't quick enough and we were not on the pace for the quick qualifying lap.
"It would have been nice to do two new tyre runs in the first session but we didn't have time. It's a shame because this is one of the circuits that I really enjoy but we'll just have to see if we can fight our way through from the back and salvage something from the weekend."
Schumacher is feeling bullish about today. "It's great to have repeated the Indianapolis qualifying result, but now I also want to repeat the race result from there," he said.
Alonso, however, believes Renault can frustrate that aim. "My chance will come to me tomorrow," he said. "I knew we were not quick enough over one lap, so that was no surprise. I have a competitive and very consistent car and I think my chance will come to me. I have a 19-point lead and nothing to lose, so I think the risk is for the others at every race."
Indy was a dull affair. This one may not be.Reuse content