Qualifying: Whither the opposition?

Michael Schumacher barely needed to break sweat as he claimed pole for the Japanese Grand Prix. Team-mate Rubens Barrichello had more of a fight as he battled with the McLarens and Williams for the second front row position, but he eventually came out on top despite a great effort from David Coulthard

Qualifying: Whither the opposition?

Behind the top six there was an almighty scrap for seventh, with local hero Takuma Sato showing the best form of his Formula 1 career to take the place from team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella in the dying seconds.

Raikkonen threw the gauntlet down in the battle for pole with a 1m32.699s at the start of the session. Neither team-mate Coulthard nor the Williams pair could match the Finn's opening effort. There was no such problem for Michael Schumacher though, and his first flying lap was a new track record for the revised Suzuka and the 1m31.825s would have guaranteed him a front row place.

Jacques Villeneuve started the second round of qualifying runs and found three extra tenths to move into a promising seventh place. Juan Pablo Montoya improved by 1.5s to move into second, just prior to the session being stopped after Allan McNish had an enormous accident,

The Scot got out of shape on the exit of the fast 130R and as he applied opposite lock to get the Toyota back under control it snapped viciously sideways before smashing backwards into the Armco. After a visit to the medical centre the Scot was advised to take no further part in the session.

It took almost an hour to get the barrier repaired, but no sooner had the session restarted then Olivier Panis' bad luck hit again and for the third time this weekend the Frenchman's BAR stopped out on track.

Barrichello was one of the first to improve after the restart, but any hopes the Brazilian had of taking pole must have evaporated when Michael stopped the clocks at 1m31.510s, to move himself 0.7s of the rest.

Coulthard reduced the world champion's advantage to half a second with 10 minutes remaining. Barrichello then pulled out all the stops with his final effort to join Schuey in the 31s, although the world champion went out one last time and further reduced his time to a 1m31.317s, and a margin of 0.4s was a fairer reflection of his superiority.

Eddie Irvine had just put his Jaguar in the top 10 when the R3 gave up the ghost and with the midfield so closely matched he could only watch as he slipped to 14th.

Sato's superb late effort together with Fisichella's solid run to eighth gave Jordan its best starting positions of the season. Jacques Villeneuve made it a good day for Honda by taking ninth, ahead of Jenson Button, who made great strides on his final run to knock team-mate Jarno Trulli out of the top 10.

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