Raikkonen and Alonso feel the force of the fight

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The Independent Online

Forget your local multiplex. Monaco became one giant open-air movie theatre this weekend as Darth Vader and his costumed co-stars from George Lucas's new Star Wars epic, Revenge of the Sith, hung out at Red Bull's floating "energy centre" and billionaires vied with one another in the "my yacht is a bigger floating gin palace than yours" stakes.

Forget your local multiplex. Monaco became one giant open-air movie theatre this weekend as Darth Vader and his costumed co-stars from George Lucas's new Star Wars epic, Revenge of the Sith, hung out at Red Bull's floating "energy centre" and billionaires vied with one another in the "my yacht is a bigger floating gin palace than yours" stakes.

Where else but the late Prince Rainier's personal playground could such a spectacle take place? Throw in a mano a mano fight in yesterday's qualifying session between the two pretenders to Michael Schumacher's crown - the championship leader, Fernando Alonso, and the Spanish GP winner, Kimi Raikk- onen - and two debris-strewing but otherwise harmless shunts, and there was every reason for spectators to feel they were in for something special. If there is one race every race fan should attend as a matter of habit, it is this jewel in the F1 crown. You feel every intake of the drivers' breath as they skim walls and ride bumps in a frenzy of corrections at the steering wheels and tap dances on throttle and brake pedals.

There was even a GP2 triumph for Adam Carroll and a brace of Formula Three victories for Lewis Hamilton for visiting Brits to cheer, plus strong performances from a fellow rising star in James Rossiter.

Once the wreckage of Ralf Schumacher's Toyota had been wiped up after the German augered haplessly into the wall on his qualifying run, the session came down to a straight fight between Alonso and Raikkonen, Renault and McLaren. Both were under serious pressure, not just because Mark Webber had pushed his BMW-Williams to the fastest time before Schumacher Jnr's faux pas, but because they now had to refocus after the delay.

After Schumacher's partner, Jarno Trulli, last year's winner, had come up with only the fifth fastest time, the Spaniard went out and lapped in 1min 14.125sec. But no sooner had he gone fastest than Raikkonen went quicker still, with an equally mistake-free run to 1:13.644. If ever proof was needed of their championship class, this was it.

"I'm happy with my lap and the gap to the opposition," Raikkonen said. "I could probably have gone even faster but I was a little cautious at the Tabac corner, where the track was still slightly slippery following Ralf's accident. Pole position is always important, but especially at Monaco."

"I am extremely happy with P2 after that session," Alonso countered. "The circuit conditions were unknown for me after Ralf's accident, because I did not have the chance to see anybody else run on the circuit before me. That meant it was a question of staying flat on the exit of Tabac and hoping the car got through, but it worked. The gap to Kimi is big, but I am pleased to be on the front row here because that is where you need to be at this circuit."

If yesterday was a cool day for Raikkonen and the Renault racers, it was close to disaster if your name was Schumacher or Montoya. Besides Ralf's shunt, brother Michael was in trouble again with the Bridgestone tyres on his Ferrari, which again were not a match for his rivals' Michelins. The best the champion could manage was an 11th place that does not bode well for his chances of equalling the late Ayrton Senna's tally of six victories here.

"This was definitely not a good session for us and obviously I am disappointed," Schumacher said, though having to start the session as the fourth man out after his problems in Spain clearly did not help, as he ran when track conditions were at their poorest.

"We know we are not so good when it comes to our one-lap performance and the fact I went out quite early in the session meant the track was very slippery, so it was even more of a handicap. Second qualifying will probably be the same situation, with little chance to improve."

Earlier in the day Ralf had been involved in another incident that red-flagged the morning's second practice session, when he was the innocent party in a situation triggered when Juan Pablo Montoya suddenly slowed his McLaren on the climb up to Casino Square. As Schumacher Jnr backed off, David Coulthard had to brake and pull out, and was hit in the rear by Jacques Villeneuve's Sauber Petronas, which pitched Coulthard's Red Bull into Schumacher's Toyota.

The FIA later decided that Montoya had lifted off earlier than necessary - in other words, brake-tested Schumacher Jnr in retaliation for being baulked by the German earlier in the lap - and promptly took away his fifth place and put him to the back of the grid alongside... Ralf Schumacher, who did not record a time after his afternoon crash. The first corner should be interesting if they arrive side by side.

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