It had been Kimi Raikkonen’s weekend so far at Shanghai until the Briton snatched pole position from the Finn by a tenth of a second. Massa lines up third ahead of Alonso.
But with rain threatening for tomorrow’s race it remains to be seen which driver has got the most suitable setup on the car.
A major storm is closing in on the Shanghai International Circuit. But qualifying was dry and sunny, if a little breezy, giving teams an enormous headache over how to prepare their cars.
The Renaults set early quick laps – Heikki Kovalainen on a 1’37.810, two tenths quicker than Giancarlo Fisichella. But a string of drivers soon began setting quicker times, promising another tight battle in the midfield.
Lewis Hamilton went to the top of the times with a 1’35.798, fastest in every sector. Behind him Fernando Alonso matched him to within a hundredth of a second, then Felipe Massa beat Hamilton by an even smaller margin – six-thousandths of a second.
Meanwhile everyone up to sixth placed Sebastian Vettel was in the battle at the bottom of the times sheets: Heidfeld one second faster than 16th-placed Alexander Wurz, who headed the effective bottom six before Raikkonen had set a time.
Raikkonen seemed to have a solid advantage in the second sector, ekeing out a quarter of a second over his rivals and going fastest by 0.1s. The leaders’ laps were already half a second quicker then they had been in the final practice session.
The session ended in a flurry of personal best laps from a host of drivers which dropped one major name out of the running – Giancarlo Fisichella. His team mate Heikki Kovalainen came perilously close to being knocked out as well, finishing the session 16th, seven-hundredths quicker than the Italian.
They were two of five drivers who set a 1’37.2 – the three quickest of which got through to the second part of qualifying, and the last two being knocked out.
Wurz was eliminated once again, although the gap between him and Nico Rosberg was much less than usual (0.3s). Sato ended the session 20th, one second slower than Anthony Davidson.
But how many of the slower drivers were gambling on a wet weather setup for tomorrow? We’ll find out in 24 hours.
Bottom six drivers’ times for part one
17. Rubens Barrichello 1’37.251
18. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’37.290
19. Alexander Wurz 1’36.456
20. Takuma Sato 1’38.218
21. Adrian Sutil 1’38.688
22. Sakon Yamamoto 1’39.336
The track had improved noticeably during the first part of qualifying and it was a full four minutes before any driver ventured out onto the track.
The usual top four took up their places at the front of the field (with Raikkonen significantly quicker than the rest by 0.4s), followed by Robert Kubica, the two Red Bulls and Nick Heidfeld.
Sebastian Vettel led the bottom six, less than a tenth behind Jenson Button, with Kovalainen, Ralf Schumacher, Davidson, Jarno Trulli and Rpsberg all threatened with the drop zone.
As usual, it was everyone bar the top four that went out to improve their times at the end of the session. That included Kubica, even though he was over half a second faster than the rest.
Schumacher produced a fine lap to jump into ninth place, with Button also moving up into tenth. Kovalainen was poised to drop the Briton out of the top ten until an error at the final corner lost him over a second, leaving Button in the clear. Davidson had ended his lap in a similar way and finished 15th.
Also out was Rosberg, an uncharacteristically lowly 16th, suggesting Williams had also prepared for a wet race.
Bottom six drivers’ times for part two
11. Vitantonio Liuzzi 1’36.862
12. Sebastian Vettel 1’36.891
13. Jarno Trulli 1’36.959
14. Heikki Kovalainen 1’36.991
15. Anthony Davidson 1’37.247
16. Nico Rosberg 1’37.483
The final part of qualifying featured the six usual suspects – the McLarens, Ferraris and BMWs – plus the Red Bulls (led, unusually, by David Coulthard), Schumacher and Button. The latter was once again through to the final part of qualifying as his team mate failed to pass beyond the first stage.
Hamilton set off at the front of the field with Alonso in hot pursuit as they began their ‘fuel burn’ laps. The Briton locked up halfway around the lap and Alonso hounded him briefly before dropping back.
The drivers did very few laps before pitting to begin their final runs – Button doing only one lap before pitting – to ensure they had put some running in on the tyres they might have to use in the race.
On the first round of laps Hamilton was quickest initially before both the Ferraris beat him – Massa leading Raikkonen by three-tenths of a second, which suggested Massa was carrying more fuel. Alonso slotted in fourth, comfortably clear of fifth placed Coulthard.
For their final runs the leaders switched to the softer compound, nursing the tyres on their out laps.
Hamilton had been the last man across the line at Fuji the week before to snatch pole position, but this time he set the quickest time and then cruised back to the pits while everyone else failed to beat it.
Fastest of all in the first two sectors, Hamilton’s 1’35.908 pipped Raikkonen by a tenth of a second. Massa slotted in third, with fourth placed Alonso six tenths slower than his team mate.
The rest of the top ten had an unusual look, with Coulthard fifth ahead of Schumacher, then Webber, the two BMWs, and Button’s Honda tenth.
If Hamilton finishes where he starts tomorrow, he will become the sport’s youngest champion (more on how the championship might be settled in Shanghai).
Top ten drivers’ times for part three
1. Lewis Hamilton 1’35.908
2. Kimi Raikkonen 1’36.044
3. Felipe Massa 1’36.317
4. Fernando Alonso 1’36.576
5. David Coulthard 1’37.619
6. Ralf Schumacher 1’38.013
7. Mark Webber 1’38.153
8. Nick Heidfeld 1’38.455
9. Robert Kubica 1’38.472
10. Jenson Button 1’39.285
Photo: GEPA / Franz Pammer