Alonso excels in dry run for main event

Renault lead way in qualifying

In the land that invented chauvinism the sight of a Renault on pole position has caused a fair bit of excitement, courtesy of the speedy Spaniard Fernando Alonso. But as usual things are not always what they seem under the unusual qualify-with-race-fuel format that will now be retained until the end of the season.

After all the fun of the rain that threw a spanner into the works on Friday, it was a relief when Saturday stayed dry, and Alonso made the most of the conditions to put an end to a flurry of fast laps that came after the halfway point of qualifying.

Marc Gene, the Williams-BMW stand-in for the injured Ralf Schumacher, kicked things off with a lap in 1min 14.275sec, before Takuma Sato immediately bettered that with 1:14.240 for BAR-Honda and then Jarno Trulli asserted himself for Renault with 1:14.070 and was in turn demoted when Jenson Button banged in 1:13.995.

The ad break brought an irritating pause before Alonso came out to put an end to the fun with 1:13.698. Kimi Raikkonen was the next one out, and given the apparent improvement McLaren's new MP4-19B had shown thus far into the event, the Finn was expected to shine.

But, by his own admission, the Finn pushed too hard in the first sector and then overdrove trying to make up for lost time. After he stopped the clocks in 1:14.346 his team-mate David Coulthard reminded him how to do it with a nice smooth run to 1:13.987, McLaren's best qualifying performance of the year.

"The result shows that we have made some progress with the car and I am happy that the hard work of the whole team is leading us in the right direction," Coulthard said. "We still have to wait for the race tomorrow to see how we compare with the fuel strategies of the opposition, but we have improved significantly."

The Scot was not exactly bursting with enthusiasm as he spoke, which suggests that, evident improvement notwithstanding, he was running a lower fuel load than, for example, Michael Schumacher, who came out next to displace him from the front row with his lap of 1:13.971. The champion has been in strong form all weekend even though the Ferrari has not necessarily set the track alight, and where Alonso and Coulthard had the mien of men who know that they will have to stop sooner than some others, the champion sounded quietly confident.

"Even with very little running yesterday we soon found a good baseline set-up this morning, so we will be in the fight tomorrow. I didn't get pole for what could be a variety of factors: tyres, strategy or set-up, for example, but I am on the front row at least. I just wasn't quick enough in the third sector. I lost about a tenth at Turn 13 because I was pushing too hard but I lost the most time in the last two corners."

Button, too, was a little disappointed, having come here with the hope of competing for a win. "Wouldn't it be nice to go to Silverstone next week with a win under our belt?" he said at Goodwood's Festival of Speed last week. As it was, completing an all-British second row was not quite what he had had in mind though his cause is far from lost.

"I was struggling with oversteer prior to prequalifying so we made a change to the car," he explained. "That didn't have the right effect during the first run so we changed again for qualifying and the balance was a lot better. The car has been working well here. Going into the race it's not 100 per cent perfect but we are consistent and the tyres are working well, so I think we will be strong here."

The race is likely to be between Alonso, Schumacher and Button, and the Spaniard is ready for the battle. "Pole position gives me a solid base for tomorrow's race. I did a very good lap: the car was understeering a bit too much at low speed, but it was very stable in the high-speed corners. From the front row, I will be racing for the win."

The dark horse is Juan Pablo Montoya, the last man to run. After his quickest time in prequalifying, 1:14.172 for sixth place was a disappointment, but the Colombian admitted to a mistake. He'll have his work cut out, but after a disqualification and an exclusion in the past two races, he needs a big score this weekend.

It has been an interesting week with Ralf Schumacher being invalided out for three months, and then FIA president Max Mosley's surprise announcement that he will be retiring in October, a year ahead of the scheduled expiry date of his reign. "It's just that I've got to the point now where I no longer find it interesting or satisfying to sit in long meetings, particularly with the Formula One teams and the World Rally Championship teams, where people often agree things and then they go away after the meeting and change their mind completely," Mosley said, besides many other things.

"It means you've wasted a day. Sometimes one says to oneself, isn't it actually probably more fun to sit on the beach with an interesting book than to sit here having these discussions?" In these turbulent times, his leaving may be the preface to fresh power struggles that will reshape the future of the sport. Will it weaken or strengthen Bernie Ecclestone's position?

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