Jenson Button has said all along that he did not expect to challenge for victory in today's British Grand Prix, but his complete bemusement at being thrown out of the reckoning after the first 15 minutes of qualifying was written all over his face yesterday.
Button was in the pits, already in danger, when David Coulthard, Tiago Monteiro and Christian Klien embarked on their final runs. He was doomed.
"The first run wasn't great," he admitted of the 1min 23.247sec lap that earned him his eventual 19th place on the grid. "The balance wasn't fantastic, and when that's the case there is no point in pushing then. You don't take risks in first quallie (sic). Then I came in. I got pulled on to the weighbridge for a random weight check, and that cost us time. I'm really surprised they pulled me in when they did. But we still thought the lap would be good enough; it was only two-and-a-half tenths off Rubens [Barrichello]."
Some were critical that Button sat in his car while there still appeared to be time to do a flying lap before the session finished promptly at the end of the 15th minute. "It's massively disappointing, for myself, the team and all the fans," Button said quietly, with the look of a man whose season is beginning to fall apart just as his team-mate's gathers strength after a weak start. "Starting 19th is not really going to help us get a good finish here, but I have started from worse. But it's frustrating when you look at what others went on to do and where I could have been."
Michael Schumacher was also frustrated, albeit to a much lesser extent, as he qualified third. The former champion has had a torrid time since his disgrace at Monaco, but survived intact after a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association on Friday night at which his behaviour in Monte Carlo was discussed briefly and no action taken by his peers. Yesterday he clearly began qualifying hopeful of securing pole position, and for a time he seemed to have done just that with a lap of 1: 20.574, even though his arch-rival Fernando Alonso all but matched that.
"On the first run I made a little mistake in the last sector," the champion admitted, "and they told me on the radio that we were second to Michael but that it was very close. I thought maybe I had lost pole because of this mistake but we got a second chance on the second set of tyres, it was a normal lap with no mistakes, so the fourth consecutive pole is a fantastic moment for us."
Alonso's second lap yielded 1:20.253 to throw the issue beyond debate, and just when it seemed that Schumacher's 1: 20.574 best would still be good enough for the other position on the front row, Kimi Raikkonen pushed his McLaren ahead with a lap of 1:20.397. Where Button was unlucky, the Finn enjoyed a slice of good fortune. He pitted late for his new tyres, got out of the pits later still, yet just completed his warm-up lap with two seconds to spare before the chequered flag fell. Where the clock stops promptly after 15 minutes in the first two qualifying sessions, in the final one the clock does not stop until each driver has completed any lap started before the flag falls.
On their home ground McLaren desperately needed a good qualifying result after recent disappointments, but the Finn was almost certainly running a lower fuel load than Alonso. So, most probably, was Schumacher. "Naturally I'd rather be on pole position," he said. "It's easier to plan the race from there. But we'll see how the strategy works out tomorrow. There's no reason to believe we don't have a package that can win the race, but strategy is the important factor."
An advantage for Schumacher is the presence of team-mate Felipe Massa alongside him, while Alonso's running-mate Giancarlo Fisichella was fifth. Raikkonen's team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya, however, was only eighth, dejected, it seems, by the news that whatever his price in 2007, McLaren are no longer keen on his services.
Though it has been gloriously sunny all weekend, a wind has caused headaches for drivers and their engineers alike as they have been massaging their technical set-ups.
"The conditions were quite similar to yesterday," Alonso said. "It was difficult for everybody. I still didn't have perfect balance this morning in the high-speed corners" - imagine trying to thread the eye of a needle with a 200mph projectile and you get some idea of the challenge drivers face in the section between flat-out Copse corner and Stowe - "but some set-up changes we made helped, and together with the fact that there was more rubber down, the balance improved this afternoon. We were quickest in all three qualifying sessions, which means that the car is ready for tomorrow. And every pole position is more and more important, because of the way it is so difficult to overtake. Probably 20 per cent of winning the race is starting from pole."
Button, who back in 2002 lost his drive at Renault to Alonso, could only watch with that quiet resignation of his. "When I look at what others went on to achieve in qualifying, it's more than frustrating," he admitted, as the mountain he must climb to that elusive first grand prix triumph became even higher.
Pitlane Diary: Bernie launches, Michael escapes
Bernie Ecclestone has a wry sense of humour. On 06.06.06 (Omen, Damien, geddit?) he launches exclusively via his formula1.com website an upmarket range of F1 branded merchandise that includes carbon-fibre mousemats, T-shirts and polo shirts, and baseball caps (special version with Swarovski crystals yours for £125).
Jacques Villeneuve's BMW Sauber bears the legend "Just Married" on its rear wing. The former champion and British GP winner tied the knot the previous week with his fiancée, Johanna Martinez. Jenson Button unveils his patriotic streak by wearing a bespoke helmet in England colours. At Toro Rosso, the style icon Tonio Liuzzi sports special Italia boots.
The drivers' briefing room hosts 14 world champions, as they have their photographs taken with the world's largest Polaroid camera, a 125kg monster that takes unique large-scale prints. The shoot is an exclusive for the forthcoming metre-square, 800-page, 40kg Formula 1 Opus, a limited-edition tome on the history of the sport to be published in July 2007.
The newly elected British Racing Drivers' Club president, Damon Hill, gives his view on former arch-rival Michael Schumacher's cheating in Monte Carlo, as the German prepares to explain himself at a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.
"I just saw what everyone else did," Hill says. "He did this funny little dance, corrected, and then just drove up to the barrier and stopped! You sit and there and think, 'That was peculiar!' If he'd said, 'My hydraulics had gone,' you'd think that was a plausible explanation. But I don't hold the view that's it's OK if you can come up with a plausible explanation. Drivers like Webber, it's beyond his comprehension why anyone would want to deceive themselves and try to deceive other people like that. We all do things in sport where we think, 'That was a bit of the old basic instinct coming out there,' but you own up. I don't hold with the view that it's OK to do it, and that the crime is to get caught. It's a cynical approach, and it's not OK to do it and have a penalty and then say that's the end of the matter."
Michael can relax. Few of his peers openly challenge him on Monaco, and in the absence of a majority vote to the contrary he remains president of the GPDA. Those drivers with true grit let him know their opinion, but the dirty laundry never gets a public airing. David Coulthard emerges to explain that the incident has "been put behind us so we can move forward".
Seen in the main grandstand, the banner: "Schumi, my granny parks better than you!"
Those who ask where the next generation of British F1 drivers is coming from should have watched the GP2 race, as Adam Carroll and Lewis Hamilton shared the front row. The series leader Hamilton sped to another stylish victory, with Carroll a fighting third.
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