On Friday March 5, the warm up sessions were spectacular, if nothing else because of Michael Schumacher's brilliance and Ferrari's dominance - he set a blazingly fast time on his first full lap about a second and a half faster than the best time at that point about 20 minutes into the 1st practice session. As if Ferrari were trying to mentally devastate the other teams and drivers, he continues on his second hot lap and betters his time further – setting the fastest time for the day.
Anthony Davidson did most of the driving for BAR Honda on Friday. Both Jensen Button and Takuma Sato running just a few shakedown laps to ensure everything was in good running order in their respective cars. Anthony's practice laps were very valuable to the team in gathering valuable information on suspension setup, aerodynamic setup, fuel consumption and engine reliability. The track experience for Anthony and other 3rd drivers would also be invaluable to their future careers as F1 drivers and make them more valuable to prospective teams. The highlight of the day was being lucky enough to be selected for a pit walk, though the opportunity did not allow for any good photo opportunities with the team.
The first laps of each of the BAR Honda cars numbers 9, 10 and 35 were rather subdued through Turn 1 as they were short-shifting up the gears as they exited the pit lane. As this was my first live F1 experience, seeing these white BAR Hondas with red, black and grey livery accelerate brake into turn 1 and accelerate out of Turn 1 was an experience to remember. The scream of the un-muffled Honda V10 engines propelling the BAR Honda 006 out of Turn 1 is something all Honda fans – especially VTEC fans – should get a chance to experience in person! Revving up to more than twice the redline of the 2.0 liter engine in the S2000, the sound resonates through your body. What is even more spectacular is on the upshifts, the is a loud pop that resonates off the concrete barriers. For this year, computer controlled automatic upshifts are no longer legal and drivers need to determine when to shift up themselves.
On qualifying day on Saturday, there were two practice sessions in the morning where the teams seemed to be testing with a their race fuel load in the first session and with their qualifying fuel loads in the second session – resulting in lap times that were not necessarily comparable between teams and in some cases were off pace compared to the practice times from the first day. There were two qualifying sessions back to back in the afternoon. In the first qualifying session, the drivers appeared in their finishing position at last year's Suzuka race. Jensen started 4th and Takuma 6th. The weather was partly cloudy and a very pleasant 78F with a track temp of around 100F. This meant that the Michelin tired cars should do well (keep in mind that BAR Honda are running Michelin tires this year). However, due to slightly untidy driving from both, they finished slightly worse than their starting order – which certainly was not to the expectations of the BAR Hondas based on their pre-season and practice times. Jensen ended 9th, 0.672 seconds behind Montoya (who had pipped Michael Schumacher for the top spot caused by Michael's mistake in the 3rd sector). Sato tried a bit too hard in a couple of turns running wide and ending up in 11th, 1.511 seconds behind Montoya. The starting order for the second session was determined by their position in the first qualifying. Jensen drove a spectacular and clean hot lap resulting in a lap time that was actually tied (to the thousandth of a second!) with Montoya for best of the rest after the Ferraris at 0.590 behind. Unfortunately, because Montoya's first qualifying session was better, Jensen was relegated to 4th on the grid for race day. Takuma was not able to match Jensen's pace but still qualified a very respectable 7th 1.443 seconds of the Michael's 1:26.173 top qualifying time.