Home fans fire Button's quest for glory

Briton on front row as penalty hits Raikkonen
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The Independent Online

When the Englishman momentarily set the fastest lap time on his qualifying run yesterday, fans in the grandstands cheered him to the echo. And it became clear that he had been indulging in a little gamesmanship in the build-up to this important race for his BAR-Honda team. Earlier in the week he had voiced the opinion that McLaren would "walk the race", but a combination of his car's speed and the misfortune that befell the silver arrows pushed him back on to the front row even though his time was subsequently bettered by both Kimi Raikkonen (who was later dropped 10 places after an engine change) and Fernando Alonso.

"Anything less than second place would be a disappointment after this," Button admitted, "but we have Juan Pablo [Montoya] right behind us so it's certainly not going to be easy. One single mistake, and we won't be on the podium."

BAR have done nothing significant to their 007 car since its rather lacklustre run to fourth place (and the team's and Button's first official points of the year) in Magny-Cours last week. "But we came here with very good balance and have made few set-up changes all weekend," Button said. "I had a bit of understeer in the high-speed corners, but fundamentally the car is no different. Maybe it just suits this circuit better. The crowd is a big boost to me and it's awesome to see so many Union Jacks out there. I'm sure that we can put on a good show for them, particularly in what has been a very difficult week for Britain."

Button, however, must overcome Alonso and keep Montoya at bay. And probably even Raikkonen, who was haunted by that spectre of a penalty of 10 grid places once again after suffering yet another Mercedes engine failure in practice yesterday morning. With a new motor installed, Raikkonen brushed Button aside yesterday. The Briton's best lap had been 1min 20.207sec, but Raikkonen took that down to 1:19.932. Yet Alonso, the winner in France, was the last man to run and took his Renault round in 1:19.905.

The big question is: who was running what level of fuel? Based on McLaren's strategy in France, Raikkonen will run longer than anyone, which means that he is faster than Alonso. But he has his work cut out climbing from his amended 12th place in the line-up. Montoya's relative lack of speed (1:20.382) is explained by the fact that he started qualifying fifth after retiring at Magny-Cours, and the track, historically, gets better from the halfway point because it is cleaner and has more rubber down to enhance grip. He will be a threat, especially after all the irritating problems that have beset him of late.

Alonso was quite cheerful, as befits a man who looks increasingly likely to win the championship this year. "It was a good lap today," he said, "and there was a really nice balance on the car. It was quite unexpected for me to be on the pole, to be honest, but the team did a great job overnight to improve the car and it felt quick straight away this morning."

Alonso's team-mate, Giancarlo Fisichella, hampered by understeer yesterday on his way to sixth on the grid, could also be a threat. Likewise the Toyota of Jarno Trulli in fourth, though it remains to be seen whether Rubens Barrichello can summon greater pace than Ferrari showed last weekend. The Brazilian's team-mate, Michael Schumacher, spoiled his lap with a mistake at Stowe corner and will start only ninth, sharing the fifth row with his old sparring partner Jacques Villeneuve, in the Sauber-Petronas. "I am not very happy with my lap, especially in the third sector," Schumacher confessed. "I had problems there as the car did not react as it should."

His discomfort was fine by John Button, who gave his son the big thumbs-up as Schumacher's effort to dislodge him came up short. That might be embarrassing if rumours of a Button move to Ferrari in 2006 ever come to fruition.

To go there, however, he would have to get himself out of the contract that Sir Frank Williams insists he has. Williams has little time for history, but this weekend marks an important anniversary for his team. Twenty-six years ago, the Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni drove a Williams FW07 to victory in the British Grand Prix, and overnight Williams Grand Prix Engineering emerged as the most serious British team in the business.

"I suppose the first win is always important," Williams's partner, Patrick Head, the director of engineering, said. "I remember in qualifying on Friday everybody was pounding round and Alan Jones [the other Williams driver in the race] went out at the beginning of the session and there was something funny that happened. He had a spin and damaged the rear wing, and we replaced it and he then went out again and did a 1:11.88, and it was just one of those times when everybody was on the pit wall with their stopwatches and when he came by and did that time everybody just gawped, and nearly packed up there and then. He was on pole by nearly a second. It was very stunning for everybody. That was when the 07 really came good."

Jones was walking the race until a water leak stopped him, whereupon Regga won. "It was disappointing for Alan, but great for Clay," Head said. "At the 1977 British GP we'd qualified last, and for some reason the Duke of Kent had a soft spot for the Williams team and he walked all the way back to say hello. And there we were two years later right at the front when he came by to see us. It was quite a nice juxtaposition."

With Mark Webber 11th and Nick Heidfeld 14th, Williams are a long way from the front today, but even with their engine partner, BMW, set to depart for Sauber in 2006 it would be an unwise man who wrote off the chances of Williams and Head bouncing back for their 114th grand prix victory in the intervening quarter-century.