Button blazes on to pole as Schumacher sizzles in second

Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher on the front row. Could there have been a bigger surprise in Canada? It's been a long time coming, for both of them. BAR-Honda and Ferrari felt at Imola back in April that, after poor starts to the season, they had turned the corner, only for each to discover otherwise.

The result of qualifying in sweltering heat on the Ile Notre Dame yesterday was yet another Boris Spasski move in the chess game that is F1, 2005 vintage. Their explosion of speed shoved Renault on to row two, and McLaren even further back.

It was a great moment for the BAR team principal Nick Fry, who had to carry the can for the Imola fuel tank débâcle and the two-race suspension. Yesterday his smile was broader than the old Olympic rowing basin here. "We have the aerodynamics right now," he said. "What we have discovered is that the car is remarkably sensitive. At Imola we got things right, and testing at Mugello afterwards we made another big step, but then at Paul Ricard we out-clevered ourselves.

"We thought we had improved the car more and found at the Nürburgring that we hadn't improved, we'd screwed up. So last week we came back from that disappointment and went back to the Imola set-up in testing at Silverstone, then worked forward part by part until we found out where we'd gone wrong."

Button was clearly delighted. "I'm thrilled to be back on pole," he said. "These past few months have been difficult for all of us at BAR-Honda and everyone has worked so hard to turn our performance around. It means so much to reward everyone. We came here expecting to see an improvement, but the circuit had quite low grip so I am a little surprised. Let's be clear: we know this is only qualifying but grid position is half the battle. It will be interesting to see how far we can take this result tomorrow."

Everything will depend on the individual strategies that teams have chosen. This is a funny track, where you can make your first stop in single-digit laps and then stop again some time later, or you can stop late and do a short middle stint, and either can work for you.

"You wouldn't do one stop or four," Fry said, "but there are a lot of permutations of two or three stops that can work." It's also a place where carrying too much fuel can hurt not just the tyres but the brakes, too. No other track demands so much of the stoppers.

You have to pity Schumacher, really. All those championship crowns ­ seven of them ­ and suddenly he hasn't been able to find his wallet with both hands after Ferrari's spectacular fall from grace. And as if that isn't enough, the Swiss tax man ­ well, actually, tax lady Susanne Leutenegger Oberholzer ­ has tabled a law to close the loophole whereby he can enjoy tax advantages living in the land of chocolate and cuckoo clocks.

Until yesterday, Ferrari's chances of repeating their 1-2 from 2004 were slimmer than Kate Moss as McLaren, Toyota and Renault set the pace and BAR-Hondas chased them. Then came qualifying. Given Bridgestone's tyre wear on Friday, some anticipate that Ferrari's strategy might be to run light, get in front, and then control the pace and upskittle other team's strategies.

Schumacher hinted at that when he said: "I am not so surprised to be on the front row, because after yesterday we understood our problems and had a much better car this morning."

While Button's current team celebrated, one of the two main sideshows of the weekend starred the team for which he is contracted to race in 2006. Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head finally hit back at the continual criticism of their operation by Dr Mario Theissen of engine partner BMW, who are seeking a divorce and hoping to buy Sauber instead.

Head bluntly observed: "I think this is Mario Theissen's approach, and personally I think it is dishonest. We must live with this way of behaving of theirs, but we can't act the same way."

Meanwhile, at Sauber, Jacques Villeneuve featured in a local media he-said, she-said spat over who was more dissatisfied with whom, Sauber with Villeneuve, Villeneuve with Sauber. The pot was stirred further when Bernie Ecclestone said of the Canadian: "He has lost his motivation. He is no good for himself and no good for anybody else any more." But Villeneuve had a last laugh, qualifying eighth.

The organisation here leaves a lot to be desired: endless delays getting into the circuit, an overheated veal crate for a press room (and they criticise Silverstone?), and a new track surface that broke up. But for all that this might just be the most open race of the season.

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