Coulthard crashes Schumachers' party

Untimely slip by Scot puts the skids under Ralf's challenge to celebrity big brother Michael
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The Independent Online

In the end, it wasn't just Michael Schumacher who prevented brother Ralf from celebrating the first pole position of his Formula One career, but also David Coulthard, even though the world champion qualified fastest and the Scot only fifth. The McLaren driver ran off the road in the final corner of his last run and, as he stalled in the gravel, the yellow flags stopped anyone else, Ralf especially, from dislodging Michael's Ferrari.

The Canadian Grand Prix victor's speed in Saturday morning's free practice boded well for his chance of securing the premier grid slot, as Ralf and his BMW Williams partner, Juan Pablo Montoya, were first and second fastest. Michael loomed, however, having been restricted to sixth fastest because of a hydraulic leak.

Ralf admitted: "We knew that Rubens Barrichello did not try new tyres, and from looking at his times [Michael's Brazilian teammate was third quickest] we knew that Michael would be quick this afternoon". So it proved. But, after two of his four runs in qualifying, the younger German had risen to Michael's challenge.

First Ralf repeated his morning performance, then he went faster. But, on his second run, it was big brother who went quicker still. The world champion has a strong record here, having won three times, and nobody has mastered the new Nürburgring so well.

"I was a bit concerned after this morning, when I did only those 12 laps and didn't get a chance to try the car on new tyres," Schumacher said. "But, after my first run this afternoon, I realised that the set-up was pretty good."

Ferrari cranked on another rear-wing element to give him greater downforce and he did the rest, becoming the only driver to thrust below the 1min 15sec barrier. Just as it had been in Canada a fortnight ago, Michael's second effort was good enough to secure him pole position.

It was his 39th, and the seventh of a season that looks increasingly likely to yield him a fourth world championship and see him surpass Alain Prost's record of 51 GP victories.

Neither Schumacher Jnr nor Montoya were able to improve, but retained second and third places on the grid as Barrichello overcame a power-steering problem to move ahead of the McLarensfor fourth spot.

These are troubled times for the silver arrows. Still reeling from the aftershock of the Great Adrian Newey Saga and the tug of love with Jaguar for his services as technical director, the Anglo-German alliance that once frustrated Ferrari's aspirations now find themselves playing second fiddle to the BMW-engined Williamses. A point that, assuredly, does not sit well with McLaren's hyper-competitive chief, Ron Dennis. The cars felt reasonably good to the drivers, but lacked pace in the first sector. Neither Coulthard nor Mika Hakkinen could make it up in the second and third.

"We had no major problems," Coulthard revealed, "though in retrospect we might have run the suspension a bit softer. As it was, the car rode the kerbs badly in the last chicane, whereas it was really good there last year. It's almost as if the kerbs have been changed, but they haven't." A gamble to trade sheer grip for better balance did not work, and Hakkinen complained that his car's handling was anything but neutral.

"We need to improve it for the race," the Finn said with tight lips, "and to use clever tactics and strategy." It's been a while since McLaren had to rely on such things, as opposed to outright pace, to outsmart their rivals, but the world champion doesn't rule out a serious challenge from the team. "We have seen them struggle in qualifying before and then they are strong in the race," he said.

Certainly Coulthard's championship challenge needs a strong finish if he is to limit the damage wrought by his engine failure in Canada, his first non-finish of the season. Having outqualified Hakkinen, he needs to continue outrunning the Finn, who has made it clear he is not yet ready to ride shotgun to help Coulthard's title hopes. That should not be taken to mean he won't ever do it, just that he believes it is too soon. But subtleties, as the Newey situation showed, frequently qualify near the back of the grid in Formula One.

A repeat of the Schumachers' fight in Canada is the most likely scenario, with Montoya as the dark horse, assuming they all manage the small matter of threading through the tight first corner without incident.