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Motor Racing

Trulli wins a lottery, rivals lose their grip

They declared the winning lottery numbers early yesterday: 7, 1, 8, 5, 11 and 2, with 14 as the bonus ball. Put another way, that's Jarno Trulli, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, David Coulthard, Giancarlo Fisichella, Rubens Barrichello and Mark Webber - the fastest seven men on the grid for this afternoon's Belgian Grand Prix.

Not quite what you might have expected on a power circuit that should have favoured other cars, particularly Jenson Button's potent BAR Honda, which is only 12th. But Spa has its own micro-climate, and yesterday it did its best to do what the combined "brains" of F1 have so manifestly failed to do, which is come up with a way of making one-lap qualifying interesting. But don't get too excited: it requires help from really high places, so it's unlikely to work anywhere else.

The morning's hour-and-a- half of practice was truncated to a mere 15 minutes after conditions in nearby Liège were too poor for the emergency medical helicopter to take off or land (nothing can happen without it being in attendance), and this meant that the first real running anyone got was in the afternoon's prequalifying session, which was also wet. Michael Schumacher and Barrichello wrapped up the two leading spots quite comfortably from Kimi Raikkonen and the Sauber drivers, Felipe Massa and Fisichella. But then came the magic recipe to spice up qualifying.

Ricardo Zonta went out first and qualified a dismal 20th after an overly cautious lap which was even beaten by Gianmaria Bruni's Minardi. Embarrassing. But veteran Olivier Panis went fastest for Toyota with 1min 59.552sec. Everyone expected that to be beaten, but that was when it began to rain again, so nobody went faster until Webber eventually wound his Jaguar round in an impressive 1:58.729. But where Webber found grip, others did not.

BMW Williams' Antonio Pizzonia lapped much slower, as did BAR Honda's Takuma Sato. They wound up 14th and 15th. The first sector of the lap was not too bad despite the rain, but the second was presenting some drivers with a whole load of grief.

Button was expected to do much better than his 2:00.237 lap, but he had made the wrong tyre choice and the track was too dry for the extreme wet-weather Michelin tyres that he and Sato had elected to run. It was an easy error to make in the changing circumstances, but that was little consolation to a man still seeking his maiden grand prix victory on a track that he loves.

"The standing water cost us in our performance," Button said glumly. "But the car is strong and we are confident for the race." Maybe so, but 12th is a long way from the front row.

The two Renaults found the perfect mix of tyres and chassis set-up, and suddenly Webber's time was history as Monaco winner Trulli lapped in 1:56.232. Alonso would have got closer to that than his eventual third-fastest 1:56.686, had he not lost time riding the kerb on the exit to Turn Nine. Coulthard snatched fourth on the grid, without ever challenging the blue cars, but when Juan Pablo Montoya, the Saubers and Kimi Raikkonen came out the drying track was doused again as the rain returned.

In normal circumstances the Ferraris could be expected to walk it, but these were not usual circumstances. As Montoya, Fisichella, Felipe Massa and Raikkonen tried and failed to dislodge Trulli and Alonso, qualifying distilled into a question of whether two Bridgestone-shod Ferraris could run better in the heavier rain than two Michelin-shod Renaults had in lighter conditions.

Barrichello's extreme wet tyres lost their edge before the end of his lap, and Schumacher's valiant effort, a masterclass of wet-weather driving control, ultimately fell short by a mere 0.072sec. Dull it wasn't.

"We took a gamble and it paid off," Trulli said. "We were watching the cars that went out before me in qualifying very closely to judge whether we could use the intermediate tyres. I thought it could work in the second and third sectors so we took the risk."

It paid off, just. Not bad for a man recently fired by Renault. Even team principal Flavio Briatore looked excited. Most lottery winners do.

Second place on the grid is hardly a disaster for Schumacher, and with a dry race forecast it is difficult to see anything but ill luck denying him his seventh world title this afternoon in Ferrari's 700th grand prix. "We hadn't expected that final splash of rain," the champion admitted. "I struggled a bit, especially by the last chicane, but I have no complaints." Qualifying was fun while it lasted, but expect normal service to be resumed at two o'clock Belgian time.