Formula one, 2001 season Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka: Practice and Qualifying: the jpoc report

Although there were no Japanese drivers at Suzuka, there was a real feeling that the last race of the 2001 season was marking an upturn in Japan's involvement in F1. Honda announced that their engines would be used by a Japanese driver, Takuma Sato, in the 2002 Jordan team. He would also be using Japanese tyres and the 2002 season would also see a second Japanese car manufacturer, Toyota, enter the fray. Honda had a new engine for Japan which was an early release of their 2002 engine.

If there was a new Japanese era coming, Suzuka saw the farewell race for Jean Alesi. In terms of raw speed he should have won a world championship and rather more than one race. As it was, his F1 career served to illustrate the to win a world championship requires abilities other than those that come into play solely when a driver is behind the wheel.

Friday's first practice session saw Michael Schumacher fastest straight out of the box with Mika Hakkinen second. That was no surprise really but Juan Pablo Montoya impressed early on with third. He had never before driven at Suzuka and he really hit the ground running as did Jean Alesi who was fifth fastest

The main on track incident occured when Thomas Enge, troubled by oversteer in his Prost, lost control on the 130R corner and hit the tyre barriers hard enough to rip both right hand wheels off the car. He was unhurt but the car was seriously dishevelled.

The main technical interest was the appearance of brake lights on the Ferraris. The teams failed to agree to make their use mandatory and most teams saw no reason to use them. Ferrari saw things differently and fitted the lights to both cars. Other than that, the new Honda engines available to Jordan and BAR and a slightly wider chassis option for Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, there was nothing else new in the pitlane.

Friday's second session reminded us of certain stages in the tour de France. If the world's greatest bike race passes through the home village of one of the French cyclists, the field normally takes it easy for the half hour or so before arriving there. That allows the home boy to pedal away briskly from the bunch and arrive five minutes or so before the main field. He will embrace the Mayor and shake hands with all of the local officials, then he will kiss his wife and ride up and down the street for a while with his child on the crossbar. Finally, he will ride away slowly just as the main field catches up. It's a nice gesture and gives an otherwise obscure rider his moment in the limelight while not actually affecting the final result.

Jean Alesi was fastest in Friday's second session. Two seconds faster than his team mate, half a second head of second placed Motoya and a second ahead of the likes of Mika, David, Michael, Ralf and Rubens.

Heidfeld damaged his car badly at turn six which led to the session being stopped for a while but he was unhurt although he had a short rest at the circuit medical centre. The only other man to have an off course excursion on Friday was David Coulthard who left a front wing endplate in the gravel at the first corner.

Coulthard had another moment of unwanted excitement when a piece of tape in a brake cooling duct caught fire but that was extinguished quickly with no serious damage. Ralf Schumacher lost time to electronics problems and too much understeer while Ferrari reported nothing worse than having to bleed Barrichello's brakes.

Minardi and Benetton suffered from more technical problems than the rest of the field combined. Alonso and Fisichella both lost their engines while a fuel leak on Button's car turned into a fire. The team and the FIA referred to the fire as small but the more excitable sections of the press found that, according to their Thesaurus, they could use words like spectacular instead.

Saturday morning saw Michael Schumacher back at the top of the timesheets followed by Mika Hakkinen. It was getting to be just like the old days again. Barrichello, Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher and Montoya followed in a routine "usual suspects" line up. Everyone else was about where you might expect.

Nick Heidfeld's Sauber had been put back together again after Friday's accident but Prost had to send Enge out in the spare as his race car could not be patched up in time. Trulli and Alesi did just a couple of laps in their Jordans as they did not want to put too many miles on their Honda qualifying special engines.

For the last practice session before qualifying, Ralf Schumacher and Montoya were fastest in their Williams from Coulthard, Michael Schumacher, Button and Trulli. Everything was set up for what looked to be a very tight qualifying hour indeed as the temperatures and track conditions changed so as to make the Michelin tyres competitive with the Bridgestones. Michael Schumacher had other ideas though.

The qualifying hour opened with the usual early outings for Minardi and Arrows. None of the early birds had any problems though Alex Yoong's first timed lap was quite slow. It would not have got him under the 107% mark but he was able to improve later on.

Kimi Raikkonen set the first serious time just outside the 1m35 mark but, as he crossed the timing line, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mika Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard all came out of the pits for their first attempts. Montoya was down on Raikkonen's time at the first intermediate and soon after that he started to encounter traffic but he was able to make it up round the second half of the lap and was fastest by three quarters of a second.

Interest then turned to the McLarens and his team mate who all completed their first timed laps in quick succession. Ralf, who was using some special brake cooling ducts, pipped his team mate's time by just under two tenths, Coulthard slotted in between the two Williams and then Hakkinen became the first man to get below 1m34. The top four were separated by half a second. Raikkonen's time was still OK for fifth ahead of Button and Villeneuve but that only lasted until Nick Heidfeld made his first run and just edged ahead of his team mate.

Neither Ferrari nor Jordan had sent a car out but, with thirty five minutes to go, Jean Alesi came out followed by the two Ferraris. Alesi's time of 1m34.420 was good enough for fifth at the time but subsequently he failed to improve and dropped down the grid.

Rubens Barrichello was the first Ferrari driver to set a time and his 1m33.703 put him ahead of the rest of the field but that did not last. Michael Schumacher stopped the clocks at 1m33.068, over half a second clear of Barrichello and a lap that would have been good enough for pole without any subsequent efforts.

Almost as soon as the Ferraris had completed their first laps, the Willams and McLarens came out to have another go. Hakkinen could not get within half a second of Michael Schumacher. Ralf did a little better but Coulthard was still almost a second back. Then came Montoya. His second run was strange indeed. Almost one second slower than Michael Schumacher in the first section, he then set the fastest time of the day in each of the last two sections. It was enough to push Coulthard down to sixth and so the order at the top of the field was Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Coulthard. We were left to wonder what Montoya might do if he could string a decent first section together with his speed round the rest of the lap.

With twenty minutes left to go, the two Ferraris came out for their second runs. Barrichello moved the mark for second place down to 1m33.341 but then Michael Schumacher simply pushed pole position even farther out of reach with the first time below 1m33 seconds.

Montoya came closest to Schumacher with 1.33.184 on his third run. He had time for a fourth run but failed to improve. His team mate needed his fourth run to claw his way back up to third on the grid but before that, Michael Schumacher came out for his third run and did a 1m32.484 lap just to demostrate his superiority and that really was the tale of qualifying.

Delete the champion from the equation and the session did contain an interesting battle to be best of the rest between the two Williams drivers, Barrichello and Hakkinen. David Coulthard never looked liked making a claim for that spot and, after he failed to improve on his second timed lap, he was squeezed out of the top six by Giancarlo Fisichella who was using a fresh qualifying spec Renault engine. Trulli, Button and Heidfeld finished off the top ten.

It was a good session for Benetton with both cars in the top ten. It was a bad session for BAR though languishing well behind fellow Honda users Jordan. That was a poor showing on Honda's home circuit and would certainly give the team cause for concern over the supply of engines for 2003.

It was rare to see Kimi Raikkonen end up outside the top ten but after the session was over, the team discovered that his car was 12kg overweight. Nice one.


The whole 2001 season All the races and the behind the scenes games
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th Who drives what?
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th Business and politics
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th Teams and personnel
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th Circuit news
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th Setting the scene
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th The starting grid
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th Race report
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th Results
Japanese GP at Suzuka October 14th Championship standings after the race
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