Formula one, 2001 season Belgian Grand Prix at Spa: Practice and Qualifying: the jpoc report

Few teams arrived at Spa with significant changes to their cars. Whether this was mere coincidence or due to the fact that the championship was over was unclear. Arrows, Benetton and Prost all arrived with minor suspension modifications but most teams just turned up with aerodynamic packages suited to the high speed corners of Spa.

The main incident in the first free practice session on Friday morning was that, in an echo of his Hungaroring experience, David Coulthard wrecked his car in an early shunt. He was not hurt but had to miss the rest of the day's running as his car could not be repaired in time.

Two teams managed to get both cars into the top six. Ferrari, for whom Schumacher was fastest and Barrichello was third and Jordan with Trulli second and Alesi sixth. McLaren and Williams got Mika and Ralf into fourth and fifth respectively. Of the team mates, Coulthard failed to set a time and Montoya just made it into the top ten behind the two Saubers and just ahead of tenth placed Fisichella.

Jacques Villeneuve joined Coulthard in the Fagnes gravel and Lucian Burti also failed to set a time.

It rained in the second session and Micahael Schumacher was fastest but he also managed to hit the back of de la Rosa's Jaguar when he was unsighted by spray. That's happened to Michael before at Spa of course. The main interest in the times was that 2002 seat swappers Trulli and Fisichella both put their cars into the top six. Adding to their teams' happiness was that both of their team mates made it into the top ten.

Of course, to an extent those performances were influenced by the rain. If you didn't set a time in the first few dry minutes then you didn't set a good time. In addition to Michael Schumacher and Pedro de la Rosa, the conditions caught out many other drivers. Montoya and Button both damaged their cars on the barriers and many others suffered spins as the rain came down.

Saturday morning dawned foggy and the rescue helicopters were grounded so practice was delayed. In the end, there was just one untimed session before the the qualifying session. The conditions started out with s damp surface and ended up dry. Once the cuircuit had dried, the two Williams, with Montoya first lead the way from the two McLarens and Barrichello. The Ferrari team leader was all the way back in ninteenth. He was having car problems and did not have the opportunity to run as the track dried.

Qualifying itself was quite amazing. As the hour arrived, the teams and drivers surveyed a track that was very wet and a sky that was still shedding some rain. Some blue sky could be seen upwind of the track everyone assumed, rightly, that the rain would soon stop. Accordingly, nobody wanted to run until the rain had stopped and, preferably, not before everyone else had run and helped to establish a dry line.

As usual, it was a Minardi that was first out but this time, even the Italian minnows waited until almost half an hour had elapsed. An indication of the tricky conditions came as soon as Tarso Marques, first out for the last time, started his first flying lap. Seconds into the lap, he spun at the exit to La Source. He recovered and set off down the hill towards Eau Rouge and he was passed by Eddie Irvine who was also just starting his first flying lap.

Another early runner was Nick Heidfeld and he was almost caught out by La Source with a big twitch and a slide towards the barriers. But he kept it all together and, like Irvine, he set two flying laps on his first run. Over their first runs, Irvine and Heidfeld kept trading fastest laps and when Mika Hakkinen became the first of the front runners to come out onto the track, the order was Heidfeld, Irvine, de la Rosa and Marques.

Whereas, the first runners had tried full wets, Hakkinen and Coulthard, who followed him out a short while later tried out intermediates. Hakkinen's time was fastest but only by a small margin and, given that he would normally expect to be well clear of Heidfeld, perhaps it was a little early for intermediates.

Soon though, a line appeared that could perhaps be described as less wet and the times started to come down. Coulthard was over a second up on Hakkinen's best time at the second intermediate but, he got into a big twitch going in to the bus stoip chicane and ended up just a couple of hundredths up.

Like many others, Hakkinen opted to do two flying laps and he got back in front on his second lap but then Michael Schumacher showed his Spa affinity and went a second faster and that stood as the fastest time for several seconds before Coulthard went better on his second lap.

Finally, the Williams came out and it really looked as though the Michelins could just not cut it in the drying conditions. Despite being noticably quick round Blanchiment, Montoya could only just get within one and a half seconds of the fastest time and Ralf Schumacher was over a second slower than his team mate.

Meanwhile, Jean Alesi was doing himself no harm by being up in fifth spot.

With fifteen minutes to go, most of the front runners were preparing for their second stints and a dry line was beginning to appear round much of the track. Meanwhile, Bernoldi was slowest and was outside the 107% cut off time. He just squeeked in on his second run with 10 minutes to go and the brinksmanship cracked with eight and a half minutes left when Hakkinen came out for his second run still on intermediates. He did not improve, nor did most drivers who came out at that point on initermediates.

It appeared that the time for dry tyres had already arrived and, with just under three minutes to go, the eintire field set out on a final run with dry tyres. As the seconds ticked away, every time that one of the front runners went past a timing point, they went fastest so far. Watching the timing screens was almost unbelivable and eventually, the Williams duo got it best by timeing it so that they made the second flying lap of their finals stints count. Three drivers managed that timing and the first of them to cross the line was Montoya who finished his final flying lap three and a half seconds clear of the field.

Read that again please. Right at the end of the session, Montoya put in a time that was three and a half seconds faster than anyone had gone before. Perfect timing. Perfect set up for the conditions and perfect jusdgement of the extent to whcih the drying trtack allowed him to push. That was the kind of performance that can only be given by a man who has that special spark.

In the closing seconds, the Schumacher brothers also finished their final laps. Ralf was less than a second slower than the Colombian but Michael was two and a half seconds back on the pole time and thus in third. It was the most emphatic qualifying performance for years.

Perhaps even more impressive was Jordan refugee Frentzen who put his Prost up into fourth place behing Michael Schumacher. Clearly the Michelin tyres were just the job for the drying conditions at the end of the session as they took three of the top four and five of the top ten positions on the grid.

With Mika and David back in seventh and ninth, Mclaren were decidedly unimpressive. Failing to put Coulthard on dry tyres for the final run was pretty inexplicable.

The last four drivers, Verstappen, Alonso, Bernoldi and Marques were all pushed outside the 107% mark by the Williams team but in the end they were allowed to start the race. That was a reasonable decision as in the end their failure was not to be too slow but not to be out on the track in the final dry moments. Forcing them to do that would probably have compromised safety in any case as the track would have been desperately full at the end.

At the end of the session, McLaren lodged a protest against the Williams drivers for yellow flag infringments but the protest was rejected by the stewards.

The whole 2001 season All the races and the behind the scenes games
Ken Tyrrell Sadly missed
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Who drives what?
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Which engine goes where?
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Business and politics
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Teams and personnel
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Circuit news
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Setting the scene
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Prospects for the race
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd The starting grid
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Race report
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Results
Belgian GP at Spa September 2nd Championship standings after the race
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