Raikkonen tops qualifying, Schumacher and Villeneuve skid off track
ISTANBUL (Turkey): With a handful of drivers skidding off the slippery track, Kimi Raikkonen was delighted to simply survive his qualifying lap. Never mind that it also brought him the pole for Sunday’s inaugural Turkish Grand Prix.
Two world champions – Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve – took embarrassing spins off the slick, hilly track. Both BAR-Honda drivers – Jenson Button and Takuma Sato – found bumpy, gravel runoff areas at the new $150 million (£125 million) Istanbul Park layout. The car of Minardi’s Robert Doornbos caught fire, and he also did not post a time.
Almost everyone struggled in spots. “It might be tricky tomorrow, but we’ll see how it goes,” said Raikkonen of McLaren-Mercedes, who clocked 1 minute, 26.797 seconds around the 5.3-kilometre (3.3-mile) course.
Renault claimed the next two spots on Saturday with Giancarlo Fisichella alongside Raikkonen, and teammate and season-points leader Fernando Alonso on the second row with Juan Pablo Montoya of McLaren on his outside.
Jarno Trulli of Toyota and Nick Heidfeld of Williams-BMW start from the third row. Fisichella said he may have lost time when he came up on Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello, who had just completed his lap and was slowing down. “It disrupted my concentration, costing me a couple of tenths,” said Fisichella, who finished 0.242 behind Raikkonen. Alonso finished 0.253 behind the leader.
Asked if this would be the most difficult race of the season, Alonso agreed. “I think so,” said the 24-year-old Spaniard, who leads Raikkonen by 26 points with six races remaining. “There are a few corners that are really, really special.” The Hermann Tilke-designed track presents several problems.
With construction barely finished, there’s sand on the track and dust blowing from the yet-to-be-landscaped area around the circuit. It’s hilly, and it also runs counterclockwise – one of only three in Formula One that emphasises the left-hand turns. And it has two special corners. The first is a downhill, 90-degree left-hander – Turn number 1. The other is Turn No. 8, a 200-degree left-hander that is made up of three small bends.
“It will a new challenge for all of us, a new circuit,” Alonso said. It was Raikkonen’s fifth pole this season and the eighth of his career. The Finn, who won the last race three weeks ago in Hungary, said his car set-up was changed after Friday practice, which made the difference. “We were quite confident, but on new circuits you really never know how it’s going to be in qualifying because here it’s quite dusty,” Raikkonen said.
With two Renaults in the top three, Alonso seemed confident. He has won six times this season, with Raikkonen winning four. Both are looking for their first season titles, hoping to end Schumacher’s string of five straight titles. Schumacher trails Alonso by 32 points. “At the moment we are thinking to beat McLaren and beat Kimi,” Alonso said. “We can do it sometimes – sometimes, not.”
Asked why he went off, Schumacher replied: “I cannot tell you the reason why. Maybe because of the wind. Maybe the track being a bit dirtier. But still it was very apparent that there were a lot of spins. It is not really promising for tomorrow.” It was no surprise. Both Ferraris were slow in Friday and Saturday practice, with the McLarens and Renaults much quicker.
Passing promises to be difficult on the new course, which is located on the Asian side of Istanbul about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Bosporus, which divides the city. The starting grid is critical. In races this season, nobody has won starting from worse than number 7 on the grid – and that was Raikkonen in Canada. In his four other starts from the pole, Raikkonen won twice. He dropped out with mechanical problems in the two others. The Finn’s two other victories came from starts in the first four rows.
Alonso has won the pole four times this season, and has won three times from that spot. In his three other victories, he has started somewhere in the first three rows.
Organisers said Friday they were expecting 75,000 fans on Sunday’s at the 130,000-capacity venue. Murat Yalcintas, the president of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, said Saturday he was hoping for 100,000, a brave prediction with only a sparse crowd on hand for qualifying. Formula One head Bernie Ecclestone seems patient. “It’s new to Turkey, Formula One, so we have to build all the races the same way,” he said. Asked how long Formula One would be here, Ecclestone replied: “We’re going to be here for ever, don’t worry.” ap