There were certainly ghosts abroad yesterday. And yet again they haunted the McLaren garage, where unsung men such as the seasoned pro Tyler Alexander - who worked at the team in the days when Bruce McLaren lived and Ron Dennis was barely out of short pants - put in endless hours fettling the notoriously complex MP4/20s.
Alexander celebrated his 65th birthday with another long day on Friday, but the "present" he and the team were given yesterday could only have been a bitter rival's idea of a gift. For the third time this year an engine failure struck down their champion-ship contender Kimi Raikkonen in practice, earning the Finn a penalty of 10 grid places. His frustration was evident in the manner in which he drove his qualifying lap.
Where his team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya had moments earlier annexed the fastest time with a lap of 1min 21.054sec, Raikkonen res-ponded with 1:20.878. Doubtless he was running a little less fuel than Montoya, as he had after being first out in qualifying in Hungary, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless. And under the silly rule that was designed to oblige manufacturers to observe the two races-per-engine dictum, his effort earnt him only 11th place on the grid.
These are unsettled times for McLaren, who ideally need to score one-two results in the remaining five grands prix if they are to overhaul Renault and Fernando Alonso for both championship crowns. They have not been helped by the recent rumours that Raik-konen has already signed a deal to go to Ferrari in 2007.
Some believe that Mercedes-Benz, McLaren's engine partner, deliberately instigated counter-rumours of Michael Schumacher's switch to McLaren in Raikkonen's place. And because this is Monza, the plot has been spiced further by suggestions that the motorcycle legend Valentino Rossi is preparing to emulate his great friend John Surtees and make the switch from MotoGP to Formula One. Rossi has signed a testing deal with Ferrari and has one more year to go on his motorcycling contract with Yamaha, which might explain why Felipe Massa only has a contract with the Scuderia for 2006 at present.
Italy's other team, the Australian-owned Minardi, are also the subject of rumours that they could be purchased by Red Bull. The energy-drink manufacturers might then be able to solve several of their problems, by setting up their long-desired Red Bull USA team, providing berths for the 2007 prospect Scott Speed and the 2005 refugee-to-be Christian Klien, and possibly also offloading some technical bods from their current operation. That would also leave the way clear at last for the underutilised Tonio Liuzzi to get a pukka chance, racing all season in 2006 as David Coulthard's team-mate in the main team prior to being partnered by Speed a year later.
With so much verbal action in the paddock it was almost unnecessary to run qualifying, but it was a good session. Behind the McLarens, Alonso narrowly deposed Jenson Button for third overall, while the once-dominant Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello could do no better than seventh and eighth fastest times.
With Raikkonen hamstrung and fears over Montoya's Mercedes engine, Button might just be poised for a maiden success. "Alonso and I were extremely close for second and third," he said, "but third on the grid here does have the advantage of being on the cleaner side of the track."
Who knows? A win might just do a great deal to persuade the Contract Recognition Board that the Englishman should stay put next year.Reuse content