Rubens Barrichello took pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, but all the talk was about the influence of the weather which, for the first time all season, introduced rain to the end of the second qualifying session.

While Barrichello and Indianapolis assailant do not look out of place on the front row of the grid, the sight, especially, of champion-elect Michael Schumacher sharing row seven with Takuma Sato will not be quite so familiar.

While the gods had indicated their mischievous disposition by introducing rain to the mix before the warm-up session, qualifying began on a largely dry surface, allowing the first half of the field - the slower half, remember - to complete their laps before things began to get tricky. Montoya and Barrichello were in the third group of five to venture out, and both found that the conditions were far from ideal, but things only got worse thereafter.

The first five drivers all succeeded one another in top spot, with Nicolas Kiesa, Jos Verstappen, Giancarlo Fisichella, Ralph Firman and Jenson Button all putting in successively faster laps before the first 'ad break' of the afternoon. Justin Wilson was the first to fall, dropping into second behind Button after he made a mistake in the opening sector and was unable to regain the time over the rest of the lap. The Jaguar driver will have been both pleased and frustrated to be just 0.084secs adrift of his fellow Briton at the end, having trailed the BAR by fully six-tenths at the first split.

Cristiano da Matta quickly restored the pattern by destroying Button's provisional pole time, the Toyota driver bringing his season's qualifying effort to a close by going a full second quicker than the Honda-powered BAR. Team-mate Olivier Panis backed the Brazilian up by pushing Button further back down the order to create a Toyota 1-2 that would remain until Montoya ventured out some five cars later.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen lost time with an error in the middle sector, locking up into the hairpin, while Takuma Sato proved slower than new team-mate Button in the first and third sectors of his first Saturday qualifying lap, and could not make up enough of the gap when beating the Briton through the middle section.

Nick Heidfeld put in a solid lap to pip Sauber team-mate Frentzen for what was then fifth place, but things could have been so much better for Mark Webber, whose effort looked good for a possible provisional pole until he locked up into the hairpin. Despite the error, however, the Australian still matched da Matta's second sector and third times, leaving himself third behind the two Toyotas.

The Jaguar driver was the last man out before the sport's current big guns were due to fire - and before the rain returned to make its presence felt....

Montoya, after his 'conservative' lap from Friday, was the first to venture out with the rain beginning to make a difference to the track conditions. Just a tenth down on the two Toyotas through the opening sector, the Colombian failed to make his allegedly superior package count, and came in just 0.007secs ahead of da Matta, appearing to leave himself open to attack from those following after him.

Barrichello was the next up, and the Brazilian duly stole pole position for Ferrari - by 0.7secs - despite joining the list of those to have locked up at the hairpin. If anything, the visual signals of rain had eased by the time that Barrichello returned to the pits, and the sight of Fernando Alonso kicking up dust confirmed that the surface was not yet wet enough to cause too many problems.

The Spaniard converted another ragged lap into fifth place, coming in over a second shy of Barrichello's mark, but it was during the handover from Renault to McLaren that the rain returned with a vengeance.

Kimi Raikkonen, the first of the two championship challengers to take to the track, was next out, and the deterioration in the conditions was immediately apparent, as the Finn went through the opening sector almost a second slower than Barrichello. Sliding through the Degner Curves and making a mistake at the hairpin only served to compound Raikkonen's lap, and another seven-tenths were lost by the end of the second part, but the Finn made a token stab at regaining a few places by banging in the fastest final sector of all, suggesting that the rain was worse on one side of the circuit.

The conditions did not appear to hamper team-mate David Coulthard quite as badly, for the Scot put in one of his best Saturday efforts of the season to push Raikkonen to the outside of row four, but, by the time Michael Schumacher had left the pit-lane, the downpour had worsened.

He may be regarded as F1's resident regenmeister, but the Ferrari driver was powerless to prevent himself from recording his worst qualifying performance of the season. Although he matched Raikkonen through the first sector, Schumacher also ran into trouble where the surface was wettest, running wide at turn ten and then locking up at the hairpin to drop vital tenths. By the time he had cleared the chicane, it was clear that a top ten slot was not going to be on, and the Ferrari eventually crossed the line with the 14th fastest time - sandwiched between Sato and Firman.

With just two runners left to go, the worst the five-time champion could achieve would be 16th spot, but he need not have worried unduly as the weather made any chance of his brother or Jarno Trulli improving all but impossible.

The German, running next to last, compromised his effort by running wide in turn one as the conditions began to affect the whole circuit and, having recorded an opening sector almost three seconds slower than Barrichello, then briefly left the road as he negotiated the tunnel section. A spin at the chicane proved to be the last straw for the Williams driver, who promptly abandoned his lap in favour of a final row - or even pit-road - start.

If there were those who had sympathy for the Schumachers, it would have been hard for any but the hardest of hearts not to feel something more for Trulli. The Italian has taken three 'Friday poles' this season, but has yet to convert one into top spot heading into the race proper. Confident that he had the car to do so at Suzuka, he could do little but make a token gesture when the rain came down, and didn't even get as far as starting his flying lap before conceding that, once again, it wasn't to be his day.

And so the most hyped session of the season ended in something of an anti-climax - and slightly more than just a damp squib - but, perversely, could have set up the most exciting race of the year just when Formula One appeared to be heading for a routine ending.

Kimi Raikkonen has one more place to make up to put himself in position to take the title than his main rival, but Schumacher has to negotiate the midfield minefield before he can even contemplate taking eighth place.

And more rain is forecast for race day....

 

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