American Formula One fans were at least treated to the sight of the sport's leading contenders running at full pelt in the first of the US Grand Prix's two qualifying sessions - but few would have expected Renault's Jarno Trulli to be the man sitting on overnight pole position.

Just as he had in both the extra testing and free practice sessions, the Italian proved to have the quickest car at Indianapolis in the single-lap shootout, but Trulli's place at the top of the timesheets came as something of a surprise as, first, Rubens Barrichello had set a sub-70-second lap in the second Ferrari and, then, the other Renault of Fernando Alonso lapped a full seven-tenths shy of the Brazilian

As had been the case in free practice, qualifying started with a dry track but with menacing black clouds massing overhead, meaning that each subsequent runner would be keeping his fingers crossed that the almost inevitable cloudburst would hold off for another three minutes at least.

For the championship contenders, there was no problem. Michael Schumacher set the ball rolling with the fastest time of the weekend so far, clocking 1min 10.736secs to eclipse Trulli's extra testing mark. The German could have gone even faster too, had he not got off-line entering turn two and had the back of the Ferrari kick out on him.

Juan Montoya, running second on the road and already engaged in a battle of wills with the five-times champion, laid down his marker with an apparently flawless lap. Roared on by a horde of fans waving the blue, red and yellow flags of Colombia, JPM ducked fully three-tenths inside Schumacher's time, setting a new target for Kimi Raikkonen to chase.

The Finn was ragged through the opening part of his lap, but didn't appear to suffer time-wise as he kept in touch with Montoya's pace until the final sector. Having clocked the fastest time of the leading three through the second-third of the lap - suggesting that he was carrying more downforce than either the Williams or Ferrari - Raikkonen only fell away on the sprint around the banking to the flag, missing second spot by 0.021secs.

Ralf Schumacher, running fourth after not losing any ground during his enforced absence from the Italian GP, had been Trulli's closest challenger in morning practice, and duly knocked team-mate Montoya off the top of the times by pulling a lap more than a tenth quicker than the Colombian from his FW25. Like his brother, however, the German could have been quicker, making the same sort of mistake in the opening couple of corners and then locking up at turn nine.

Barrichello completed the opening quintet, and defied the 'experts' by blitzing not only his team-mate's time, but also that set by the other Schumacher just a minute before. Quickest through the opening sector, Barrichello continued to press on and took a similar accolade for S2. With the Ferrari V10 wailing away in the back of his F2003-GA, the Brazilian picked up more time running the oval section of the track, finally breaking the 1min 10secs barrier to record a target time of 1min 09.835secs and leave the rest of the field with a few minutes to catch its breath while the television world went for a commercial break.

Alonso was the first man out on the resumption, but was already noticeably down on top speed as he began his flying lap. That said, however, the talented Spaniard was still only 0.003secs from Barrichello's mark through the first split, and hung on in there through S2, where outright pace doesn't matter so much. It was only on the run to the flag, with half of the longest flat-out run in modern F1 to cover, that the Renault ran out of puff, dropping its pilot seven-tenths off target.

If that wasn't enough to convince the crowd that Barrichello would be starting last of all on Saturday, the first signs of rain appeared as David Coulthard wound up for his run. The conditions weren't bad enough yet to prevent the Scot from completing one of his best Friday laps of the season, slotting into fourth spot, but suggested that the rest of the field would struggle to match the earlier performances.

Anyone expecting Trulli, the next man out, to begin the degeneration of times was in for a shock, however. The rain had not taken a strong enough hold to slow the Renault any more than its own engine was likely to, and the Italian stunned the pit-lane by being quickest of all through the first sector split. From there, like Barrichello, he continued to pick up time and, even on the long sprint to the line, little was lost. The result was eye-opening, as Trulli broke the final beam a full two-and-a-half tenths quicker than the best of the Ferraris had managed, pushing Barrichello back to second - and the world champion down to seventh.

Worse was to come for Schumacher Sr, as Mark Webber made the most of a still largely dry track to jump into third spot, but the German was prevented from dropping further down the order before half-time when Jenson Button turned in a horrible effort, complaining of a definite lack of grip as he came in more than two seconds adrift of Trulli's time.

While many expected the young Briton, who had been best of the Bridgestone rest behind the Ferraris in free practice, to slide down the order, he was saved initially by the luckless Giancarlo Fisichella - who was trying to overcome a decided lack of track time with a Jordan-Ford that lacked the power to do any damage - and Cristiano da Matta, who made a mess of his first competitive lap at Indianapolis by locking up at turn one.

Then the rain came....

Effectively locking the top twelve into position, the weather turned with a vengeance, trapping Heinz-Harald Frentzen out on track as it began to rain heavily, and preventing Olivier Panis from changing away from the regular grooved tyres he had fitted for his run. That these two occupied 13th and 14th slots on the final order said a lot about how much worse the conditions became.

Jacques Villeneuve was the first man to tackle the now streaming track with the right rubber, but for all his previous experience at the Brickyard, the Canadian was unable to prevent himself completing a flying lap that was almost nine seconds off the pace.

The rest of the session became largely meaningless, with the final quintet fighting simply to avoid being the slowest of all or, worse still, giving the mechanics a late night after finding the wall.

Nick Heidfeld fared best of all, running with the deluge abating marginally and coming home inside Villeneuve's time. Beyond that, the only surprises were Jos Verstappen's decision to abort his lap - after the traction control failed on his Minardi - and Justin Wilson coming home slower than returnee Ralph Firman in the second Jordan. The two Britons had not seen the Indianapolis layout before the extra testing session earlier in the day, and both appeared overly cautious during qualifying, but Wilson's result will have done little to endear him to the Jaguar hierarchy he is relying on for a job in 2004.

Nicolas Kiesa, running on Bridgestone's 'extreme' wets, brought up the rear of those to complete their allocation of three laps, but lapped 2.5secs slower than the second Jaguar and more than twelve seconds off Trulli's impressive offering.

 

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