Raikkonen class throws a spanner in the works

Flying Finn stuns Schumacher and Alonso
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The Independent Online

Are Renault beginning to lose their grip on the world championship? As Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa qualified their Ferraris second and third for the German Grand Prix, the points leader, Fernando Alonso, languished a disappointing seventh, a second off the German's pace, and afterwards appeared to have few answers.

"I don't think we ever got our tyres working properly on the timed lap, and even before the session we knew it might be a little bit difficult for us this afternoon," the Spaniard said, glumly. "Obviously, starting from seventh position makes our job quite a hard one, but I am still confident.

"I think we have compet-itive pace on the long runs, and now we need to believe in the choices we have made for set-up and strategy, and let the race unfold. Hope-fully, we can make it to the podium tomorrow."

If there is a Spanish version of whistling to keep one's spirits up, that might have been it. It was not much of a 25th birthday. Renault suggested that the track conditions improved all afternoon, but that flew in the face of their own contention that their Michelin tyres liked it the hotter it got.

"I definitely think I could have done better," Ferrari's Massa ventured. "I was expecting to fight for pole after the pace I showed this morning, but I'm very optimistic for the race."

So what is going wrong at Renault? Can they pull something out of the fire on the day? It may be that they optimised their cars for the race, rather than for qualifying; we will find out this afternoon.

As the battle between Ferrari and Renault gathers intensity, McLaren chose a timely moment to come good. Kimi Raikkonen repeated his 2005 pole position, giving the warring rivals something else to factor into their calculations. Curiously, both regarded McLaren's resurgence as a bonus: Renault because it kept one of the Ferraris off the front row; Ferrari because Michael Schumacher said so.

"Kimi being strong this weekend might help us, and it's a great situation for us, where Alonso is," the former champion said.

Actually, it is difficult to see that the presence of the silver arrow on pole for their business partner Mercedes-Benz's home race is anything other than a pain in the butt for either of them. For Ferrari, the man who may (or may not) partner Michael in 2007 will not be a pushover and could be a spoiler as they seek to score maximum points; for Renault it means that McLaren used their tyres better.

Schumacher and Massa are both very confident about their race set-ups and the likelihood of Bridgestone's tyres performing as strongly as they did in similar temperatures a fortnight ago in France. Schumacher won there for the eighth time, and hopes to boost his record of only three wins here in 13 starts. Raikkonen also figures he might have a shot, too.

"It was great to get pole today as the car has been working really well all weekend," the Finn mumbled. "We had some new developments at the test last week and it is clear that they have moved us in the right direction. Obviously today is only half the story, but I like this track..."

He and Schumacher both had incidents. Raikkonen's second run was already slower when he decided to push harder in one corner and went grass-cutting; Schumacher had one lurid slide, entering the pits after missing his turn-in point, and later upset Alonso by cutting in on the Spaniard on another occasion as they left the pits.

"I exited the pit lane and then saw Alonso pretty close, but the lollipop had gone up in my pit so I just went when I was told to and wasn't aware he was there," Schumacher said. "If he felt it was a problem I'm sorry for that, but that's the way it goes sometimes."

There was a surprise from Jenson Button, as he qualified his hitherto recal-citrant Honda a promising fourth. "Obviously this is a very positive qualifying result for us and I'm really pleased that I'll be starting from the second row tomorrow," he said. "We've looked competitive all through the weekend but I'd prefer to wait and see how the race pans out." He is not the only one.