Button ready to spoil party

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It was a day when the leading title contenders - Mika Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard - each needed to put everything into the effort to take pole position, but only the Finn was able to rise to the occasion.

It was a day when the leading title contenders - Mika Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard - each needed to put everything into the effort to take pole position, but only the Finn was able to rise to the occasion.

Jarno Trulli in the Jordan Mugen-Honda was quick all weekend, and insouciantly snatched the pole briefly away from Hakkinen before the World Champion reset the clocks. And Jenson Button applied his junior formula experience of this daunting track, and his uncanny smoothness, to conjure up a time quick enough to leave Schumacher and Coulthard behind him on the grid.

Formula One was back in business after the recent tedium of the Hungaroring as the majestic Spa Francorchamps - the last real circuit left in the game - generated one of the best qualifying sessions of the year.

"I really enjoyed this session and found it amazing to drive flat out through Eau Rouge and Blanchimont," Trulli said of two of the toughest corners in the world as he celebrated his front-row starting position. "I'm not surprised - I knew it was possible since the car felt good as soon as we went out on Friday."

Button, like Trulli a former star in karting who progressed very rapidly to F1, was similarly delighted with his Williams-BMW. His performance, ironically, was the only relief for the Benetton team, for whom he will drive next season, as they had a disastrous time. "I'm ecstatic. I really didn't expect to be that far towards the front," he admitted. "Truthfully, I expected to be in the top six and the second row is obviously a great result for me. In one hour I will wake up and realise that I'm just third - a racer is never happy until he's on pole. But I can't wait for tomorrow."

Fifth place is potentially a disaster for Coulthard, who sorely needed a front-row start. Eurobet, the online betting company that sponsors the Arrows team, gives him odds of 6-1 against winning the World Championship, compared with 9-5 and 5-2 for Hakkinen and Schumacher respectively. On yesterday's performance they may be right. Having dominated things on Friday, the Scot fell victim to the need for an engine change on his McLaren on Saturday morning, and then in qualifying he and Heinz-Harald Frentzen indulged in one of those tit-for-tat spats that ultimately benefit neither party.

"The first time it was my fault. The radio communication is bad at the chicane and I didn't hear what the team said about David closing fast on me," Frentzen admitted. "I tried to stay on the outside but it was too late. David then blocked me twice after that. I thought it was a bit unfair..." "It all got a bit messy," Coulthard agreed. "There was no way he was going to brake in time for the chicane when he closed up on me subsequently, but he just seemed to want to go for it and ended up cutting across the grass." Frentzen's best lap time was subsequently disallowed as he missed much of the chicane. "When I got to La Source I came upon him again," Coulthard continued, "and he screwed my lap. Straight away I lost three tenths."

Last year the Scot started alongside Hakkinen on the front row and showed his inner aggression by pushing inside at the first corner, forcing him to concede the lead and then going on to dominate the race. Afterwards Hakkinen was uncharacteristically po-faced about it, but typically Coulthard refused to let anyone leave until the ill-feeling had been sorted out. Hakkinen felt he had risked them both, and he might have had a point. The previous year Coulthard's spin exiting the La Source hairpin had triggered one of the biggest multi-car shunts in F1 history.

Last year, however, Coulthard won the corner. It was a legitimate, if hard, move, the sort that racing drivers at this level are paid to do. "I've got no problem with Mika's view," Coulthard said. "It was fair enough to analyse whether I took too big a risk and jeopardised us both. But my counter was that there were no team orders, therefore I believed I owed it to myself if there was an opportunity to try the best I could to benefit from it."

McLaren chief Ron Dennis has made it clear that they are free to fight again. "Each race is discussed at various stages. There are plenty of occasions for the drivers to discuss what they believe will be the correct behaviour to adopt when running on the circuit. There is nothing better than to have two drivers working together as a team and being appreciative of each other's aspirations. It doesn't always go right. There have been the odd occasions when our drivers have squeezed each other and even touched each other's cars. But that's a price we're prepared to pay." And it is a payment made in heavily devalued currency compared to the outright animosity that developed when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were team-mates at McLaren.

Now, rather than pushing Hakkinen, Coulthard is likely to have his hands full with Schumacher this afternoon. The German, who made his sensational F1 debut here in 1991, needs to equal Ayrton Senna's five Spa wins to keep his title ambitions on track. If he does he will also equal the late Brazilian's tally of 41 GPs, a figure bettered only by Alain Prost's 51. But the odds favour Hakkinen, and with Trulli and Button complicating the equation, anything could happen at the start. Hungary this isn't.