His confidence boosted by successively better outings on home soil and at Sentul, Stephen Simpson took the fight to season-long pacesetters France and Switzerland to claim pole position for the ninth round of the A1 Grand Prix series for South Africa.

The South African had set out his stall prior to qualifying, leading the third and final practice session at Parque Fundidora by a comparatively massive six-tenths, but no-one expected him to be able to repeat the feat when it counted, particularly with the likes of Switzerland and France - who could seal the title this weekend - possessing known qualifying pedigrees.

In the end, it came down to a three-way battle between Simpson, Alex Premat and Neel Jani, with the occasional threatening appearance by a host of extras, and down to the final seconds of the fourth session, before pole was decided.

Premat underlined the French potential by topping the first quarter of an hour, ahead of Simpson and Jani, but was the only one of the leading trio to drop out of the top three during the afternoon, a ragged third run not producing a sufficient aggregate to warrant anything higher than fifth, as both Ireland and Brazil sensed an upset.

By this stage, Simpson had seized control, moving ahead of France in session two and holding position, in front of Jani, when the third chequered flag fell. On each occasion, the South African was among the last to venture out, keeping the crowd on the edge before confirming his place at the head of the field. Premat had tried to change the system by making an early run in the third session, but it counted against him.

Normality was resumed when the final quarter came around, with Premat edging out narrowly ahead of Jani and Simpson with just minutes remaining. The game of brinkmanship almost saw all three stranded in the pits with insufficient time to complete their required laps, but France cracked first, allowing battle to recommence.

"I didn't expect to be on pole when I woke up this morning, the car is working really well and I got to grips with the track quickly," explained Simpson. "Our progress has been building in the last few races, and my confidence has been building too. There is a great atmosphere in the team and things can only get better. I didn't realise I lost pole in the last session, the team just told me that I was the last fast car on track so I just put my head down and tried to see what I could do."

Premat's lap was good enough to return the tricolour car to the head of the times, but Jani, who had sensibly dropped back from under the French machine's wing, could not quite summon enough to reclaim position, dropping behind his DAMS stablemate. That then became third as Simpson reinforced his superiority with a lap that opened the aggregate margin between himself and the points leader to a whopping nine-tenths.

"Qualifying was really interesting, Stephen was really fast and did a great job," said Preamt. "We improved throughout the session but it wasn't enough. Maybe tomorrow we will have rain, I hope so as the car is great in the rain."

Jani too conceded that he didn't have the pace of the South African machine. "The top three is always good, I knew we couldn't go for pole as Stephen was too quick, but I thought we might be able to get second," said the Swiss. "Qualifying was quite difficult, there was so much sand at the beginning of the session, but by the end there was hardly any left, so the track was getting quicker and quicker. I don't think third is too bad tomorrow for the Sprint race as I will have the inside line."

The battle to join Jani on row two eventually went the way of Italy's Enrico Toccacelo - who had not previously featured in the reckoning. Returning after two races out of the azzuri machine, Toccacelo posted the fastest lap of the weekend to that point in session two, and then bettered it on his final run to move up to fourth.

That jump knocked the USA, for whom returnee Bryan Herta posted a new best lap mark early in session four, Ireland and Brazil down the order, the latter pair to eight and ninth respectively, allowing the Czech Republic and Netherlands to make the most of rapid final laps and snap up the intervening positions. Portugal filled out the top ten, but there was no place for Great Britain, which had taken pole last time out at Sentul, Mexico - which has installed Salvador Duran in the hope of an improvement over practice - or New Zealand, which had shared top spot with France in Friday's practice sessions. The trio filled 15th, 14th and 13th respectively.

Patrick Carpentier appeared set for a solid A1GP debut after posting the tenth best lap of session one, but missed the second session completely and was left to play catch-up thereafter. Missing an apex when on a good final lap did not help either, and the Canadian - who had to face up to replacing Sentul winner Sean McIntosh - was classified a lowly 19th.

Fellow debutants Graham Rahal and Patrick Friesacher both wound up ahead of Carpentier, but not by as much as their practice performances may have suggested. Rahal's Team Lebanon car looked wayward at the best of times and eventually claimed 16th spot, one ahead of Friesacher, who had shown better than his eventual 18th for Austria.

 

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