Japanese Grand Prix, final qualifying: Rain gives championship a final twist

Rubens Barrichello claimed pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, sneaking his lap in moments before rain began to fall, throwing the session - and the championship-deciding race - on its head. Kimi Raikkonen will start from seventh, with points leader Michael Schumacher way down the grid in 14th

Japanese Grand Prix, final qualifying: Rain gives championship a final twist

The session started out dry, with the first spots of rain sighted while Mark Webber (12th to run) was completing his lap, although the conditions didn't slow the cars much. Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams) was the next man out, and the first sign that the track was beginning to lose speed came when he was only 0.007s faster than Cristiano da Matta's Toyota.

Barrichello was next to run, and if there was any rain falling on the track, the Brazilian didn't notice it. The Ferrari ace set a stunning lap around Suzuka, banging in a time 0.699s faster than Montoya's.

"I'm really happy," said Barrichello. "I was really thinking that it was a good lap. I don't know if it was good enough for pole or not, but it would have been close. Of course, then it started raining."

Barrichello's pace dropped Montoya to second, although the Colombian was still confident of doing well in the race. "I was a bit disappointed with the lap, I had too much understeer," he admitted, "but this morning we showed the car's potential, so I'm very pleased. I think we should be very strong."

After Barrichello the rain began to fall harder, slowing those runners who had earned the 'benefit' of running last by going fastest in Friday qualifying. Raikkonen (McLaren) scrabbled to eighth, narrowly beaten by team-mate David Coulthard.

The rain steadily worsened throughout the rest of the session, and was falling relatively heavily by the time it came for Michael Schumacher to run, although the Ferrari ace still opted for dry tyres. But the German lost time everywhere, and found himself relegated far down the order.

"When the new regulations were devised, this is what they wanted to happen," said Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn. "Michael's lap was very good considering the track conditions. I think we've got something to work with tomorrow. Rubens is on pole, and Kimi's only in eighth, so we'll see what happens."

The major beneficiaries of the rain was the Toyota duo of Cristiano da Matta and Olivier Panis. After struggling slightly yesterday, the pair went out quite early, and were the clear pace-setters before the big hitters took to the track. When the rain began to fall, it ensured the Japanese team of its best ever qualifying result on home soil, with Da Matta third and Panis fourth.

"I'm not going to believe that it's a true spot," admitted da Matta, "But I believe we'd have been in the top eight if it hadn't rained, so it was a good lap anyway. Of course, I'll take the third fastest time, I'm not going to complain about that."

Fernando Alonso (Renault) scrabbled to fifth in the damp, ahead of Webber's Jaguar. The rain did its bit to help Briton's Jenson Button and Justin Wilson. With the duo running early after slightly disappointing Friday showings, both put in very solid laps, and then were elevated into ninth and tenth respectively as the front-runners were slowed.

Takuma Sato qualified 13th in his first GP for BAR - and can claim the added bonus of out-qualifying Michael Schumacher! While the Japanese driver couldn't match the pace of team-mate Button today, he at least put in one of the more spectacular looking laps, with his car twitching and writhing through the tortuous S Curves.

The biggest losers in the rain were the two drivers who were fastest yesterday. Ralf Schumacher (Williams) found that his slicks weren't up to the job by the time he came to lap, and lost control at the final chicane before aborting his lap. In truth, his spin made little difference, as it was looking certain that he would have been slower than Nicolas Kiesa's Minardi (18th) in any event.

Meanwhile, Friday pole-sitter Jarno Trulli never got as far as his qualifying lap. After beginning a depressingly slow out-lap on a by now sodden track the Italian opted to not even attempt a qualifying run, resigning himself to last on the grid for tomorrow's race.

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Barrichello on Pole as Rain Shuffles Grid in Japan
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