Italian Grand Prix: Schumacher pipped for pole on his swansong

Raikkonen arrives late to lead the grid
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Monza, that magical mecca of speed, is heavy on symbolism. And what could have been more symbolic than the fight between Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen for pole position yesterday?

As much as these things can ever be certain, there are few people here who now believe anything other than that Schumacher will announce his imminent retirement from Formula One within minutes of the conclusion of this afternoon's race. Or that Raikkonen will take his seat for 2007, alongside the Turkish Grand Prix winner, Felipe Massa.

It was the Brazilian who made most of the running in the three sessions of qualifying until the final nail-biting moments, when Schumacher slammed in a lap of 1min 21.484sec to take what appeared to be a swansong pole position. How fitting would that have been, in what could be his last competitive appearance in front of Ferrari's adoring tifosi? But Raikkonen had other ideas, and snatched it away in the dying seconds of the session in his McLaren Mercedes - by two thousandths of a second.

Move over, old man, Ferrari's future is here already. It was the Finn's third pole of a season in which he has yet to win a race, and you sense that he feels his moment may be at hand.

"It was very close but the car has been pretty good all weekend," he said after the session. "And the lap was not clean. I had quite a big moment twice in Ascari, but it was good enough for pole, I think we have quite a good car for the race. It's all going to be down to which tyres last longer in the race. But I'm confident."

Schumacher looked about as happy as a man who has discovered a rat in a hamburger - or a man who will start on the dirty side of the grid.

"The car is going very well," he said, voice clipped. "We were quite strong and consistent in the test here last week, so it is a com-fortable position to be in.

"Obviously, two thousandths of a second is a tight battle, and it would have been nice to be on pole for our home GP, but what's important is what we achieve tomorrow."

On the basis of most of practice Ferrari might reasonably have expected to be dominant, since Bridgestone appeared to have done their homework better than Michelin prior to the test (the French were put out to discover that the track had largely been resurfaced). But by Saturday morning they had found better grip, and suddenly it was even stevens again.

"It was quite a clean lap," Schumacher said when asked if he had made similar errors to Raikkonen. He was happy, however, to learn that his arch-rival, Fernando Alonso, was only fifth. The Spaniard overshot the first chicane after picking up a puncture in his right rear Michelin tyre on the pit straight, and had to limp slowly all the way back to the pits.

That put his runs out of kilter, and he completed a dramatic warm-up lap which saw him duck beneath the chequered flag with a second to spare. He was thus able to run one more crucial lap which moved him from eighth up to fifth in a Renault whose bodywork had been damaged by flailing rubber.

"It was a day when I was lucky and unlucky," the championship leader said. "Obviously, the puncture cost me a chance to fight for the pole, but equally we had this problem at a circuit where we are competitive."

Schumacher was told of Alonso's problem, and in response to his feelings about losing the pole he said: "It's better than having Fernando alongside or in front of me."

And he added: "I'm happy that Nick is up here with us today, another German fellow," in reference to the third-fastest qualifier, Nick Heidfeld of BMW Sauber. "We are second on the grid: look where Fernando is, it's not bad for us. I'm feeling pretty confident."

Inevitably, there was the question of whether his weekend had been affected by the announcement scheduled for this evening. "Inside it's not a story, it's been very clearly communicated," he said. "If it is at all a distraction, it's one to other people, not to us."