Alonso steals march over arch rivals

French Grand Prix: Raikkonen down the grid as Renault storm to pole position to keep the home crowd happy

The odd protester intends to try blocking the entry to the circuit with his ass (donkey, that is), but that's the only thing likely to threaten the running of this race. François Schneider, co-founder of Car Busters magazine, is railing against the profligacy of the event. "We want the end of this anachronistic activity reserved for a score of spoilt rich brats," he says.

Somebody should tell him that if he wants to be in the minority he ought to protest that the race should be held, because most people in F1 who have to travel to this barren and (during Grand Prix week) wickedly overpriced part of La Belle France would be only too happy to have an excuse to be somewhere else.

The fans were a lot happier yesterday than they were in Indianapolis two weeks ago, however, when Fernando Alonso gave them something to cheer by planting his Renault on pole position. Though the ambient temperature remained five degrees below the expected 27C, Michelin's tyres still had an edge over Bridgestone's as the Spaniard pushed his way round in 1min 14.412sec. Making this even sweeter, he was faster than arch-rivals Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher, both of whom were also displaced by Jarno Trulli in a Toyota.

A fortnight ago the Italian's team gave him enough fuel for perhaps three laps, knowing that he would take pole position for a race he had no chance of starting. It will be interesting to see how far he goes this time. As ITV commentator Martin Brundle acerbically observed, "fake" (low fuel) pole positions can be tedious. Alonso's form can be taken as read, as probably Schumacher's can be, but a question mark remains over Trulli's.

This will be a slightly academic argument for Raikkonen, as an engine failure on Friday afternoon has lost him 10 grid places, but therein lies one of the hopes for an absorbing race. The Finn most likely has a greater fuel load than his rivals as McLaren will seek to outrun them rather than to fight through from 13th on a track where the Adelaide hairpin offers one of the few genuine overtaking opportunities.

"I'm delighted to be on pole for the second time at this circuit, which I love," Alonso said. "The car has felt good all weekend after our work in testing last week in Jerez, and the balance was very stable so I could attack all the way without mistakes."

"It'll be tough starting 13th," Raikkonen said with resignation, all too aware that he needs to keep winning to overhaul Alonso. "But I'm confident we have a competitive package so points and even a podium are not out of reach."

Schumacher cannot be ruled out, even though his tyres lost their edge by the end of his qualifying lap. "We felt we could do well here and I will now be starting from third on the grid which is a good position even though I had hoped to be fighting for pole. This is a better position than we have found ourselves in at most of the races so far this season." With seven previous wins here, it would be unwise to rule the champion out.

So far the weekend has been pleasantly devoid of politics, though yesterday the seven supposedly "guilty" teams who "boycotted" the US Grand Prix added some more information which underlined why they never had a hope in hell of participating. After outlining what steps a troubled Michelin had gone to trying to reproduce the tyre failures on their rigs in Clermont-Ferrand in France and Akron in Ohio, group spokesman Ron Dennis of McLaren explained: "At 06.30 on Sunday morning we were advised that we had a critical problem. In the simulated conditions of the corner the tyres had failed. They had also failed with the Barcelona tyres. We had no tyres we could race with. The critical document came at 08.00 on Sunday morning which said we could not race unless speed was reduced in that particular corner.

"Throughout the balance of the day every effort was made to find a solution. We were in a very difficult situation. The simple fact is that the teams put safety before any commercial consideration, a point that was clearly appreciated by the drivers. This problem unfolded all the way through to 11.40 when the decision to go to the grid was taken at the request of Bernie [Ecclestone]. The option of racing did not exist."

Dennis further explained that everyone was subsequently informed of the laws in Indiana, under which they could have faced criminal prosecution on the grounds of reckless endangerment if they had raced in the knowledge that their tyres were unsuitable, even if there had not been an accident. "The only thing that Michelin would agree to was to put in a chicane," he said. "The option of running sequences of 10 laps never existed."

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