The race is on. In Saturday's first qualifying session for the Spanish Grand Prix, three drivers - all virtually on empty tanks - blitzed the Circuito Catalunya in almost identical times.
Jarno Trulli, roaring to an historic maiden first-on-the-grid for Toyota F1 - albeit only as provisional overnight pole sitter - was but a mere 2/100's of a second quicker than Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren, with local boy Fernando Alonso's Renault sandwiched in between.
The last time F1's top three qualified so closely together was in 1997, ironically also in Spain - albeit at Jerez and not Barcelona, when Villenueve, Schumacher and Frentzen matched each other with absolutely identical times, down to the last 1/1000th of a second!
What are the chances of that ever happening, even just once - let alone again?
Well, in Barcelona three of F1's four quickest men came close. The fourth one, however - and a seven times world champion to boot - was languishing in 7th, a good 0.6 secs off the pace.
Were Ferrari's Bridgestone tyres in trouble then, as this column had predicted they might be in hotter temperatures than Imola's cold wintery weather, where the Schu had such a margin over the field that all and sundry predicted another Ferrari tidal wave a-coming?
Possibly. Bridgestone tyres are notorious for hitting their optimal operational zone only on a second flier, leaving Ferrari drivers - for the moment at least - somewhat defenceless on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Still, it would have been stupid to count Schumacher out for the race.
Rubinho's rotten luck
Barrichello however, was a different story. Rubens had suffered his third straight mechanical failure in a row, one at each race now, ever since the F2005 had been introduced. But instead of having had to replace another gearbox, as in Bahrain and Imola, it was an engine this time around - which effectively dropped Rubens to the back of the grid.
Strange, how it is the Brazilian's Ferrari - year after year after year - that almost exclusively and sometimes quite regularly breaks down over the first half of a season, until Rubens is clearly out of title contention, after which he usually comes back with a bang when Michael needs him to ride shotgun. Rubinho usually has to wait until Silverstone - or halfway into the season - before he is allowed to turn in great drives. He led his fourth race ever, of course, for the Reds - ironically also at Silverstone.
Before he promptly broke down!
Gloomy then, was the Brazilian's outlook for the weekend. But with his teammate's stirring come-back drive still fresh in the memory, a race day resurrection for the Schu was clearly not out of the reckoning.
Yet there were subtle - and ominous - differences between Bologna and Barcelona.
In Italy, first quali had been run in cool conditions, which helped to catapult Michael to third overnight, despite having had to bolt early on a green track. At Barcelona though, the world champion was relatively nowhere, after a late run on a fast track.
The second difference was that Sunday in Spain brought no relieve. Unlike Imola, where cool Saturday temperatures continued to plummet on race day, Barcelona stayed hot and sunny. If not sweltering like Bahrain's, the track - newly surfaced and less abrasive than before - was still a severe test of tyre durability.
Contrary though, to common believe, the Catalunya test would be administered on two fronts:
1. contact surface degradation (more relevant to the rear tyres, which provide traction); and
2. side-wall strength (more applicable to the left-hand tyres, specifically the front, on which the car has to lean for seven excruciatingly long and fast sweeps per lap, for two flat out fliers and 66 race tours).
On a hot day.
Bridgestone clearly had no answer. Keep in mind that at Imola, even on a mild Friday and cool Saturday, Ferrari's rears had built up to the usual optimal performance over the first couple of laps, whereafter the car's tail had begun to slide - a degradation deficit that was completely masked by qualifying's abbreviated format and race day's cold front.
In Spain, the weather turned around and played to Michelin's strengths. And the strongest Michelin runner in terms of protecting rubber is the McLaren. This then, was Ferrari's third major obstacle - a lethal tool in the hands of the world's coolest, cleanest and probably quickest driver, Raikkonen.
With detailed aero improvements already promised at Imola - where the Kimster should already have won - and more importantly also major engine updates in a car that clearly lacked straight-line speed earlier in the season, the MP4/20 has at last fulfilled the promise of an ambitious project which started two years ago with the MP4/18.
But whereas the needle-nosed MP4/18 and MP4/19 were fragile (having pioneered unique new bonding techniques) and also prone to overheating (having been packaged too tightly), and whereas last year's Merc engine grenaded regularly through a lack of structural strength and stability, the MP4/20 at last seems like a complete package, in terms of engine, chassis and aero.
Yes, and tyres. The beautifully crafted MP4/18 was the first Adrian Newey car to have been designed with the specifics of Michelin tyres (like square shoulders) in mind.
The 19 and 20 have lost none of the 18's sleek beauty; it is said of the 20 that it is the only car on the grid with a totally clean, pure and uninterrupted airflow from front to back wing.
Not for nothing was Newey the man who took the Leyton House car from a pre-qualifier in 1991, to a front runner in the French GP (with the hopeless Ivan Capelli as pilot) in the space of two races - purely with the help of a new aero package.
Ferrari's woes, of course, did not end with tyres. Schumacher's engine was in its second race, after having been pushed hard in the previous one, whilst Raikkonen and Alonso had fresh horses with which to gallop off into the distance - with the prospect of carrying their new mills over to the Monaco GP, engine-wise the least demanding race on the calender.
What will be important in Monte Carlo though, is precision, traction and grid position - exactly the qualities and features that Jarno Trulli had exploited so masterfully last year, in ending Schumacher's salvo of five victories on the trot.
The speed and precision came from Jarno, of course, and the traction from Renault, helped along by Michelin's dynamite performance on a hot lap.
In Monaco, the rubber's got to grab and stop on a flying lap - something that will worry Ferrari no end. On top of that, Schumacher will have to do his Saturday lap on a green top, whilst Alonso and Raikkonen will run right at the end, the championship-leading Spaniard with the Renault's massive traction to boot, an advantage he shares with Fisichella.
Fisico, of course, has never been out-driven by a teammate before, let alone been trounced. But a strong drive in Spain - including fastest lap - held much hope for Fisi's future. And if ever there was a track on which the ultra-smooth Italian has shone beyond the means of his car, it was Monaco.
Trulli is, like Fisi, another genuine expert of precision driving. He'll miss the low-end grunt he used so spectacularly in last year's Renault, Toyota's wonderful V10 being better suited to top end revs. And the TF105 chassis itself is still not ready for heavy kerbing, as Imola has shown.
But if Jarno plucks another magical flier or two out of thin air, he might just head for another podium. In this regard, one cannot praise Toyota highly enough for the commitment, perseverance and application they have shown, in making the grade in F1. This is a serious team with a big future. Or, if you want, a big team with a serious future.
Point is, that all four of the above-mentioned drivers - plus mercurial ex-teammates Ralf Schumacher and Juan-Pablo Montoya (who clinched pole in the principality with a stellar 2003 lap) - will qualify late on Saturday, on French rubber, which has won all of the last three Monaco outings (Coulthard in a McLaren in '02, Montoya in a Williams in '03 and Trulli in a Renault in '04).
Should the same happen again - with the six pilots mentioned all finishing ahead of Ferrari - and Michael Schumacher will lose the better part of another ten points vis-à-vis Raikkonen and Alonso, leaving him 13 races to make up in the region of 40 points.
Which should make him thankful for BAR's expulsion from Spain and Monaco, two races in which the Michelin-shod Brackley outfit would have taken even more points off the Scuderia.
Schumacher's mid-race pace - and the BAR effect
Which reminds one, in turn, to wonder just that little bit about Schumacher's astounding mid-race pace, specifically in Italy, but also in Spain.
After having made a mistake in first quali which roughly cost Kimi a quarter of a second (compared to Alonso's times on empty and full tanks), Raikkonen would have been in the order of 0.8 secs quicker than Schumacher on empty tanks - or 1.6 secs over two cold runs, if fuel loads were similar in the second runs.
By the end of Sunday quali, the Finn's advantage however, was 2.130 secs - or half a second more, than it would have been on similar fuel loads. Which seems to suggest that Schumacher had been carrying about 12 kg - or 16 litres - of extra fuel, compared to Raikkonen, on the Sunday morning run.
However, running seven laps further than Kimi in the race suggested something else. Instead of just 16 extra litres of fuel, seven laps more would have required 28 liters of extra fuel - 12 litres more than the time and hence weight penalty in qualifying would have led us to believe.
That's 9 kgs of weight that Schumacher had potentially paid no penalty for, in terms of lap times, during the race. And that's 9 kg that Ferrari's No. 1 might have been running lighter than the 600 kg minimum weight (for car and driver combined), at the end of both its first and second stints - exactly what BAR was accused of.
Its funny, in any case, that Schumacher would elect to run such extremely short last stints. Is it that he is then perhaps properly fuelled (to pass post-race weight scrutineering) - and hence also slower, limiting the weight penalty with fewer heavy laps?
Since when, also, is Schumacher's quickest 1.5 or 2.6 secs per lap better than Barrichello's, as it was in Spain and Imola respectively?
Something smells fishy. But don't bet on the FIA to find Ferrari guilty of anything. Has never happened in the past. Will never happen in the future. Who, after all, is the only team to have signed up with Bernie already, for the years 2008-2012?
Egmont Sippel is the motoring editor of Rapport