Montoya gambles on rain break

McLarens set trend by opting for speed despite weather forecast
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The Independent Online

They have got off to a great start. No Mercedes-Benz engines have gone pop. No drive shafts have broken. And no hydraulic failures have dampened their ardour. Nor has either driver made a mistake, nor a Michelin tyre failed.

But this is the Hautes Fagnes region of Belgium, where fortunes change faster than they did on Wall Street in 1929. The Italian Grand Prix winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, was the last man to go out for qualifying. At one stage, as the morning's warm sunshine faded and there was a momentary flurry of rain, it seemed his luck might remain malign, but the track stayed dry and Montoya did the business.

"That was a nice and smooth lap," he said. "I was sitting in the car when I saw a few drops of rain and was thinking, 'Oh no'. However, I think it just stopped when I went out and it didn't affect my lap. The car was working well despite us having only limited time to work on the set-up, but we seem to have found the perfect balance between speed and grip.

"To get the front row is fantastic for both Kimi [Raikkonen] and I, as it's just what the team needs at the moment."

Montoya's lap of 1min 46.391sec was just 0.049sec faster than his team-mate Raikkonen's, and the Finn was philosophical. One of them has to be running at least one lap's-worth less fuel than the other, and the smart money is on that being the "Kimster".

"Second place is good," he said. "My lap was OK, but I was not on the limit as there were those few drops of rain."

Nobody, however, is taking anything for granted. On Thursday it was as hot as it had been in Turkey. On Friday it rained so much that only three drivers ventured out in the afternoon. Yesterday it was hot again apart from the brief spatter when Jarno Trulli was on his fast lap. Then it rained partway through the GP2 support race.

Today's forecast is for rain, and yet more rain. Some teams, such as Sauber Petronas, opted to chase the perfect dry-road qualifying set-up on one car and to accommodate the seeming inevitability of rain in the race on the other; they have Felipe Massa eighth on the grid and Jacques Villeneuve 14th. But Toyota and Renault appear to have done what McLaren did and have gone for speed rather than worry about what effect rain might have.

Giancarlo Fisichella was third fastest in his Renault on 1:46.497, and Jarno Trulli separated him from his partner Alonso after lapping his Toyota in 1:46.596. Alonso managed 1:46.760. But since Fisichella changed an engine yesterday morning, he was hit with a 10- grid-place penalty and thus dropped to 13th, elevating Alonso to the second row.

That, and his pace compared with the McLarens, has given Renault cause for quiet optimism. If Alonso can score four points more than Raikkonen, he will have wrapped up the world title and become the youngest man (at 23) ever to win it.

"I am pretty pleased with the position," the Spaniard admitted. "At least we managed some running today. Things seem closer between us and McLaren than they have been in the last few races, and though it will be difficult to beat them maybe it's not impossible."

So far it has been a quiet weekend for Jenson Button, whose "negotiations" with Sir Frank Williams regarding his 2006 contract have not got any closer to resolution. The Englishman will start ninth after lapping his BAR Honda in 1:47.978 to trail the Toyota of Ralf Schumacher, Michael Schumacher's light-fuelled Ferrari and Massa.

If it does rain during the race it will not be the first time that this place has thrown up an unusual race. The conditions may well render it a lottery, and since the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, believes Alonso has been a "lucky" driver this season, perhaps the Spaniard really will scoop the jackpot with three races left.

As expected, Red Bull yesterday confirmed that they will take over Minardi from 1 November 2005, to create their second F1 team. This will enable them to give race seats to their four contracted drivers - David Coulthard, Tonio Liuzzi, Christian Klien and Scott Speed - in 2006. Neel Jani will be the test driver.

The former owner, Paul Stoddart, said: "I had a rough night last night after doing the deal, but I am happy that the team will be in the hands of someone who can take it further than I have."