Raikkonen finds perfect ally in vintage car

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The Independent Online

It is pretty much the half-way point of the world championship struggle and yesterday, at least, qualifying for the Grand Prix of Europe reflected the growing trend of the title fight, with Kimi Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya dominant, and Ralf Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard trying to hang on to them in company with the Renault drivers. With one second covering the top six this could not be called a dull session, even though the on-track action did not spice up until it began raining when Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jenson Button were beginning their efforts.

By this time Schumacher Snr had set the pace, as the first man out, only to have Raikkonen take over following an excellent lap for McLaren-Mercedes.

"The car has been perfect all day and we improved it even more for qualifying," Raikkonen said, but this was the car with which he began the season rather than the new one launched at the end of May which has yet to race. It had been expected that the new car would appear here on Mercedes-Benz's home ground but a combination of problems with its mandatory crash tests, two crashes in testing, and reliability issues persuaded the Anglo-German team to wait. If the McLaren MP4-18 does not debut at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in July, it may not race until September.

This did not appear to worry Raikkonen yesterday. "The whole lap was pretty good," he said nonchalantly, "and I made no mistakes. There is no doubt that the MP4-17D is quick, but it's a matter of making all the parts work together and for me not to make any mistakes, and then we are there." Twice this season the Finn has made damaging errors in the pressure cooker of single-lap final qualifying, one of which in Canada a fortnight ago most likely cost him the title lead.

Schumacher Snr, however, remains his usual confident self. "I did a good lap, being a bit careful in the first sector before going flat out." The team are also confident that they have identified the right Bridgestone tyre for tomorrow's race, so in his homeland the champion, seeking his 69th Grand Prix victory, will be as dangerous as ever.

BMW-Williams is also brimming with confidence, despite both Montoya and Ralf making small errors that restricted them to third and fourth places. There is some semblance of unity within the team, where BMW and Williams have been squabbling and sabre rattling for months during prolonged negotiations over the renewal of their partnership. There have been some harsh words and some heavy criticism of Williams by BMW, but the alliance is moving forward strongly now and yesterday both parties confirmed they will stay together until the end of 2009. That dispelled rumours that BMW might consider setting up its own team, or even buying BAR or Sauber.

There have also been suggestions this weekend that the former Sauber driver, Felipe Massa, now a test driver for Ferrari will partner Schumacher next season with Barrichello taking over as Sauber's No 1.

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