But the first qualifying session of the year threw up plenty of surprises. The bubble burst for Felipe Massa as an apparently self-inflicted car failure left him 16th.
Heikki Kovalainen managed only 13th and Super Aguri decisively out-performed Honda. Here’s how it all happened.
The third and final practice session promised us surprises in qualifying. Kimi Raikkonen finally got on top of team mate Felipe Massa and was fastest – but the real interest was behind him.
A remarkable fourth fastest was Anthony Davidson in the Super Aguri. In the developed version of last year’s Honda he was 0.427s behind Raikkonen and quicker than the likes of Massa, Fernando Alonso.
It was arguably an even better performance than fellow British rookie Lewis Hamilton – third, 0.319s faster than team mate Alonso.
Davidson’s performance had the unfortunate consequence of raising the prospect of a protest over the legality of the Super Aguri along with the Toro Rosso and Red Bull cars. But it appears to have been staved off at least until after the race.
After some wet running on Friday the track stayed dry on Saturday.
Christijan Albers’ Spyker was the first car out on track and his oversteering moment into the first corner belied the greenness of the circuit. His 1m 32.3s lap was 1.8s slower than his effort in third practice – but that lap had been 1.8s of team mate Adrian Sutil’s pace.
Davidson’s Super Aguri posted the first representative lap at 1m 29.211s – 2.8s down on his third practice pace. Jarno Trulli then displaced him with a 1m 28.709s.
The Red Bulls popped up quickest next with Mark Webber displacing David Coulthard by 0.8s. But in no time at all McLaren rookie Hamilton eclipsed both with a 1m 26.674 – only 0.2s off his morning time.
Team mate Alonso’s response was fractionally slower – 0.023s down – before Raikkonen narrowly displaced both with a time just three hundredths quicker than Hamilton. Massa made it a tight quartet at the top with a time just 0.078s slower than Raikkonen, but nonetheless fourth.
Robert Kubica tightened up the top even further with a time 0.001s faster than Alonso’s.
With two minutes left attention turned to the final six slots on the grid and the drivers who would be knocked out. Jenson Button was just one of the drivers under threat in the Honda RA107 but a decent time on the soft compound yielded a 1m 27.540 – 15th but six tenths slower than Davidson in the Super Aguri!
Team mate Rubens Barrichello was not so fortunate though – as he became one of the first drivers to be eliminated.
17. Rubens Barrichello, Honda, 1m 27.679s
18. Scott Speed, Toro Rosso-Ferrari, 1m 28.305s
19. David Coulthard, Red Bull-Renault, 1m 28.579s
20. Vitantonio Liuzzi, Toro Rosso-Ferrari, 1m 29.267s
21. Adrian Sutil, Spyker-Ferrari, 1m 29.339s
22. Christijan Albers, Spyker-Ferrari, 1m 31.932s
Jarno Trulli provided an entertaining diversion by accidentally dragging a car jack out of the pits under his rear wing a la Johnny Herbert at Barcelona 12 years ago.
Team mate Ralf Schumacher had problems too, circulating slowly with apparent gearbox problems.
Giancarlo Fisichella was first to beat the fastest time from the first session with a 1m 26.545s. Surprisingly, Mark Webber’s Red Bull was in close attendance, only 0.1s behind, though the big hitters were yet to set a time.
Button’s 1m 27.661s looked unlikely to carry him through to the third session. But compatriot Hamilton now lopped a second off the quickest time with a 1m 25.577s. Alonso again was faster through the first sector but ultimately slower overall – this time by 0.025s.
Raikkonen dialled in a 1m 25.644s in his Ferrari but with conspicuously less effort than the McLaren drivers – suggesting he had plenty in reserve.
Massa was the last driver out of the pit lane with 3m 37s to spare but paid the price when he clouted a kerb hard and suddenly the Ferrari crawled to a halt.
Alonso meanwhile had gone chasing lap time with a fresh set of tyres and went quickest with a 1m 25.326s.
A late surge by Takuma Sato decided the intra-Super Aguri battle in his favour. He took tenth, pushing out team mate Davidson by 0.151s.
A more surprising elimination (along with Massa) was rookie Heikki Kovalainen, one second slower than Fisichella. Ralf Schumacher commendably recovered from his earlier problems to make it into the top ten – the presence of both Toyotas in the final session was definitely a surprise.
11. Anthony Davidson, Super Aguri-Honda, 1m 26.909s
12. Nico Rosberg, Williams-Toyota, 1m 26.914s
13. Heikki Kovalainen, Renault, 1m 26.694s
14. Jenson Button, Honda, 1m 27.264s
15. Alexander Wurz, Williams-Toyota, 1m 27.393s
16. Felipe Massa, Ferrari, no time
The McLarens, BMWs, Toyotas, Fisichella, Raikkonen, Webber and Sato comprised the first top ten of the year that all rumbled out of the pits to begin burning fuel.
With seven minutes remaining the drivers began peeling into the pit to get their qualifying laps started.
Alonso was quicker than Hamilton first time around – 1m 27.050 edging Hamilton by 0.140s. But Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld knocked them both back – the Ferrari driver with a scintillating 1m 26.072s, Heidfeld 1m 26.782s. Were McLaren planning to run more fuel?
Most drivers pitted in for new tyres and a second run, including Raikkonen despite his seven-tenths advantage.
The Finn didn’t improve – but he kept his pole position despite most other drivers finding more time.
1. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 1m 26.072s
2. Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Mercedes, 1m 26.493s
3. Nick Heidfeld, BMW, 1m 26.556s
4. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, 1m 26.755s
5. Robert Kubica, BMW, 1m 27.347s
6. Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault, 1m 27.634s
7. Mark Webber, Red Bull-Renault, 1m 27.934s
8. Jarno Trulli, Toyota, 1m 28.404s
9. Ralf Schumacher, Toyota, 1m 28.692s
10. Takuma Sato, Super Aguri-Honda, 1m 28.871s