Alonso wins first pole on home soil

Spectators are the winners as Renault and Ferrari put the competition back into F1
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Anticipation is a key part of any pleasurable experience and now that battle is firmly engaged between Renault and Ferrari, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher, F1 is suddenly overdosing on it.

First there was the San Marino GP at Imola in April, where Schumacher narrowly reversed the previous season's defeat by Alonso. Then the GP of Europe last weekend, where the result was the same after the Spaniard had led until the second refuelling stops.

Yesterday the two of them mixed it up again on Alonso's home turf, where he took his second consecutive pole position of the season and his first for his native race. It has been nip and tuck between the two of them all weekend, and they ended qualifying separated by 0.3sec. And, crucially, by Alonso's team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella.

The likeable Italian was back on form after two disappointing races and lapped 0.2sec quicker than Schumacher. The latter starts from the cleaner side of the grid, right behind Alonso on the run down to the first corner. But if Fisichella does what Renault pay him to do and gets the jump on Schumacher, his role will be to contain the multiple champion and his fourth-fastest team-mate Felipe Massa so that Alonso should be able to sprint clear, make his first refuelling stop and regain the lead once the Ferraris stop.

That is assuming that the Renaults are actually running lighter than the Ferraris, which may not be the case. So far there has been no sign that Michelin have the sort of advantage over Bridgestone that Alonso anticipated from the past two years in the tyre stakes. But if the Michelin-shod Renaults and the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris are on similar fuel loads for the first stint, the former may have a small but critical advantage.

Alonso's true rise came last year when Ferrari and Schumacher were in the doldrums. Now, the latter are back, to the sport's benefit. Hark back to the first race here, in 1991, and there was that fabulous bit of high-speed, chassis-bottoming, spark-inducing theatre with Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna running wheel-to-wheel, mere inches apart, at 200mph down the main straight. Mansell won that duel, but only just. Recollection of it is relevant because that was another period when two greats of that era fought man to man. The same thing is in prospect this afternoon, as two of the three greats of the present era go at it.

"I enjoyed this qualifying with all the people in the grandstands supporting us with this new sport in this country," Alonso said. "For me that does not bring more pressure, just more motivation. We test here all winter with empty grandstands, and now it is so different with so many people here and I will enjoy it very much. Sixty-six laps won't be enough for that tomorrow.

"It was tough this afternoon, and our main worry was to go through qualifying two; qualifying three was easy. It was the same thing as at the Nürburgring last week. Qualifying two was so-so, qualifying three fine. Ferrari and Michael are strong again, but we have just had to concentrate on our job to take the maximum from our car. Our worst place so far is second, so if we keep this consistency it will be good for the championship. Tomorrow we have to think of victory, and it's possible."

"It is all about strategy," Schumacher said, "whether you can be disappointed or rather happy. In general we knew we might have to make a little sacrifice for qualifying, but we have very strong race pace."

There were other more pressing things for Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, only eighth and ninth, to consider. "The balance was fine until I asked for a front wing change," Button said. "Normally you would expect a better front end, but I had massive understeer, far more than we would have expected." Once again, that maiden win seems a lifetime away.

As for the McLaren-driving Finn, he can only dream of the 2007 Ferrari contract that paddock intelligence insists will be confirmed any day now.


1 F Alonso (Sp, Renault) 1min 14.648sec

2 J Fisichella (It, Renault) 1:14.709

3 M Schumacher (Ger, Ferrari) 1:14.970

4 F Massa (Brazil, Ferrari) 1:15.442

5 R Barrichello (Brazil, Honda) 1:15.885

6 R Schumacher (Ger, Toyota) 1:15.885

7 J Trulli (It, Toyota) 1:15.976

8 J Button (GB, Honda) 1:16.008

9 K Raikkonen (Fin, McLaren) 1:16.015

10 N Heidfeld (Ger, Sauber) 1:17.114

11 M Webber (Aus, Williams) 1:15.502; 12 JP Montoya (Col, McLaren) 1:15.801; 13 N Rosberg (Ger, Williams) 1:15.804; 14 *J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber, 1:15.847; 15 C Klien (Aut, Red Bull), 1:15.928; 16 V Liuzzi (It, Scuderia Toro Rosso) 1:16.661; 17 S Speed (US, Scuderia Toro Rosso), 1:17.361; 18 T Monteiro (Por, Midland) 1:17.702; 19 C Albers (Holl, Midland) 1:18.024; 20 T Sato (Jap, Super Aguri) 1:19.920; 21 F Montagny (Fr, Super Aguri) 1:20.763; 22 D Coulthard (GB, Red Bull) no time.

* J Villeneuve will start from back of grid after being penalised 10 places