Byline: Richard Rae at the A1-ring
Barrichello takes pole as Michael Schumacher misses the front row for the first time this season
In every picturesque village that surrounds the A1Ring there is a road sign which reads "Bitte - nicht so schnell (not so fast, please)". While probably not intended for Michael Schumacher personally, the world champion appeared to take the message to heart yesterday.
A Ferrari will be in pole position for today's Austrian Grand Prix, but it will be driven by Rubens Barrichello while his team leader - teammate denotes an equality of status that the likeable Brazilian does not enjoy - fumes a row behind in third.
Just for once, everything did not go according to plan for Schumacher during a hugely eventful final 20 minutes of qualifying.
The spanner in the works, not to mention oil on the track, came courtesy of Jarno Trulli, who blew his Renault engine as he drove into the final turn before the finishing straight. With Barrichello and Heinz-Harald Frentzen skidding off in his slippery wake, the session was red-flagged to allow the mess to be cleared up. In the minutes that remained, Barrichello was first to dip under 1min 9sec, taking more than half a second off Ralf Schumacher's first effort.
Given that, a couple of hours earlier, Michael had been faster than that in practice, it appeared to be a relatively gentle target, but, to general surprise, his first flying lap was slower than Barrichello. Both Ferraris went for back-to-back laps, but while Barrichello immediately imp-roved his time, Schumacher made a rare mistake, spinning off at the first corner.
With conditions suiting Williams's Michelin tyres, Ralf Schumacher drove a beautiful lap to move into second place. Under real qualifying pressure for perhaps the first time this season, his brother tried the spare car, but although he went slightly faster it was not quick enough to get him on to the front row.
Schumacher was mystified. "Obviously we'll investigate, because it's very unusual to go faster in practice than you do in qualifying," he said. "It wasn't anything specific, the car just wasn't performing."
Before anybody gets too excited, however, this does not mean he is not still the favourite to win the race. Williams pulled out all the stops yesterday, conditions were in their favour, and on one flying lap they got it right. Today, they will be required to match Ferrari over 71 laps.
"I still feel reasonable about the race, because we have done a lot of work, and we are fast in general," said the world champion. "We knew it would be tighter here than in Barcelona, but I still believe we have an edge and hopefully we will use that to our advantage."
Ralf agreed. "This is a lot better than we expected, and it's down to the team getting everything possible out of the package. It will be harder in the race, but it is encouraging to be closer to Ferrari than it looked at one stage," he said.
The start, uphill into a first corner notorious for the number of collisions that occur, will be fascinating, not least because Schumacher will be alongside Juan Pablo Montoya, with whom he has already clashed this season. Behind them, the labouring McLarens find themselves fighting off another challenge to their top three status, this time from Sauber. Nick Heidfeld beat both Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard to take fifth, with Felipe Massa splitting them in seventh. Unfortunately for Coulthard, the Scot is last of the group, out-qualified by his younger teammate for the third successive time.
"We qualified in a similar position last year and I won the race," said Coulthard. "I'm not saying that this will be a repeat performance, but it shows that you never know what may happen."
True, but it would be a considerable shock. Raikkonen, who said his aim was just to finish the race, hopefully in the points, was more realistic.
While the McLaren team maintain the problem relates to the package as a whole, the speed trap figures made revealing reading. Flat out, Raikkonen and Coulthard ranked 19th and 21st of the 22 drivers, which would seem to suggest that the Mercedes engine is the main area where improvement is required.
It was also a relatively disappointing session for Jenson Button, who got caught up in traffic on all four of his attempted flying laps before qualifying in 13th, one place ahead of the Toyota of Allan McNish.
Austrian Grand Prix, today, ITV1, 12.05pm; highlights, 11.55pm
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 2002