Button back on track to push Ferrari

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Michael Schumacher fastest, Rubens Barrichello second. The circuit here has been revised, but not the qualifying scenario. So what's new?

How about Jenson Button third quickest? The 23-year-old Englishman's performance has been a fillip for Formula One here, as he set the second fastest time in morning practice and continued his strong form in the afternoon. Two years ago Monaco brought the disapproval of a world that saw him as a playboy with his yacht ostentatiously moored right by the paddock entrance. A year ago he was upstaged by his Renault team-mate Jarno Trulli. But this season, with the level of support and nurture he needs from the Lucky Strike BAR Honda team chief David Richards, he is emerging once more as a man to watch.

Yesterday, as the Ferraris lapped with metronomic precision, such is the excellence of their chassis and Bridgestone tyre marriage, Button used similar rubber to stake his claim to a respect that has not been forthcoming since his rookie year with BMW Williams in 2000. His lap was as clean and neat as Schumacher's and not much slower. On a day when a lot of other up-and-coming drivers were making errors, Button's drive stood out as strongly as the garish pink cat painted on the Jaguars' engine cover in recognition of a deal struck with the diamond merchant De Beers.

"As usual it was manic out there," Button said with his schoolboy grin, "but I'm pretty happy with the car." His sole problem was some slight graining of his front tyres by the end of the lap.

"It was a good lap by Jenson," Richards said with a hint of warmth and avuncular pride. "I think Michelin had an advantage over us here last year, but this time I reckon things are going to be pretty equal."

That was an interesting remark, given that the top three were on Japanese rubber, and the next three on French, with a lot less than a second between them all. And given that the Renault engineer, Pat Symonds, firmly believes that the top three relied on soft Bridgestone tyres that might prove disadvantageous in a tough race. His man Trulli was a strong fourth, while the new prospect Fernando Alonso showed rare signs of his inexperience by making small but costly mistakes which left him only 14th.

The other big loser was Mark Webber, through no fault of his own. The Jaguar driver had been quickest in the morning in the unsung but highly competitive R4, but was stymied by Frentzen's engine problem which saw the session stopped for 25 minutes as the escaped oil was cleaned up. When qualifying resumed Webber was the first man out, but despite that handicap he drove beautifully to set a time good enough for ninth overall.

"There certainly wasn't any oil left on the circuit, but there was a lot of sand," the frustrated Australian said. "The temperature had also dropped a lot, but we are not sure whether this helped us or not." He will start the real qualifying session in 12th place tomorrow, which may not be a complete disaster in the way that a seventh-place start will almost certainly be for Alonso.

With the leading players David Coulthard fifth fastest, Ralf Schumacher sixth, Juan Pablo Montoya eighth and Kimi Raikkonen only 11th, qualifying holds much promise for drama.

As for Ferrari... well, it looks like business as usual. The technical director, Ross Brawn, was very happy after the session. "We arrived at our tyre selection quite quickly," he said, "and we have a good package. From now on it's all down to strategy." For sure, that will be crucial here, where overtaking is impossible.

MONACO GRAND PRIX (Monte Carlo) Practice qualifying times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 16.305sec; 2 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari +0.331sec; 3 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 0.590; 4 J Trulli (It) Renault 0.600; 5 D Coulthard (GB), McLaren-Mercedes 0.754; 6 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 0.758; 7 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Ford 0.775; 8 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 0.803; 9 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar Racing 1.332; 10 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber 1.607; 11 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1.621; 12 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda 1.804; 13 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Ford 1.981; 14 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 2.065; 15 A Pizzonia (Br) Jaguar Racing 2.662; 16 J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi 3.116; 17 J Wilson (GB) Minardi 3.375; 18 O Panis (Fr) Toyota Racing 3.598; 19 C da Matta (Bra) Toyota Racing 4.069; 20 H H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber no time.

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