In the end, a Schumacher is on pole position in Monte Carlo, but it is not the one everyone had expected it to be. While Michael will line his Ferrari up in only fifth place this afternoon, baby brother Ralf will start at the head of the field in his BMW Williams.
The feat surprised Ralf as much as it surprised everyone else, especially those who have accused the young German of driving like a grandmother for much of the season. "This pole position means a lot to me," he said. "It's my second after France 2001. I am very surprised. I never thought it would be possible, especially when I saw my brother being so strong in the first sector. But obviously he made some mistakes or something."
In fact, it was not brother Michael who made the mistakes, but Ralf's BMW Williams team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya, who had been very quick in the morning but admitted to getting the second sector of the barrier-lined lap wrong and losing time as a result. Even so, the Columbian is still ahead of the world champion.
At the beginning of the weekend, there was little to choose between the performance of the Michelin and Bridgestone tyres. But in the high track temperatures of qualifying, the French rubber stood up better than the Japanese tyres, which lost their edge at the end of the qualifying laps.
"I hope it is a difference in fuel loads that has decided the grid," Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn said pensively, "but it looks like the [Bridgestone] tyres did not hold grip for the whole lap."
Schumacher himself was naturally annoyed to be on the third row, but tried to make light of the clear disadvantage. "Obviously I'm not satisfied," he said. "The first row would be better than the third. But it is not hopeless. The tyres were not perfect, but I drove a lap that was error-free. When you are fifth there is always a chance that you will be involved in an incident at the first corner, but they have modified the first corner this year and there are more chances to escape if there is one.
"I still believe that we have made a good choice for the race and we will only find out [this afternoon] how much fuel all the cars have really got on board." Nevertheless, he and team-mate Rubens Barrichello, seventh on the grid, have their work cut out. Ahead of Schumacher are, besides his brother and Montoya, world championship leader Kimi Raikkonen and Jarno Trulli.
The McLaren driver held the fastest time until Ralf Schumacher just shaved it, and admitted that, although he was naturally pleased to start from the front row on a track where that can be crucial, he was also disappointed not to have taken pole after coming so close in Austria a fortnight earlier.
"In hindsight perhaps I hit the kerb a bit too hard at the Swimming Pool chicane, so I lost some time there," he mused. "Monaco is a place where experience is important, and I feel more comfortable here this year than last year." We are talking, incidentally, about a deficit to Schumacher Jnr of a whole 0.036sec.
Raikkonen's team-mate David Coulthard should have been a firm contender for pole, having been the only man in the 1min 14sec bracket in morning practice. But an adjustment to his McClaren for qualifying resulted in a hurtful understeer that restricted him to sixth place. "I also got it wrong at the Swimming Pool which ultimately ruined my lap," admitted the 2002 winner.
Much had been expected of Renault's challenge on a circuit that should have suited its R23, and the team put a brave face on fourth place when some had expected a front-row position. Team-mate Fernando Alonso was only eighth, slightly detuned after a couple of incidents in the morning.
The incident that really grabbed the attention, however, befell Jenson Button. He appeared to lose control of his BAR Honda approaching the chicane during morning practice, and spun broadside into the escape-road tyre wall in an accident worryingly similar to Karl Wendlinger's there in 1994. On that occasion the Austrian had to be placed in a medically induced coma until cranial swelling subsided, and his misfortune prompted the high-sided safety cockpits that are mandatory today. The BAR's meant Button escaped with only bumps and bruises - a testimony to modern safety.
Button was taken to the Princess Grace Hospital for examination and was kept in overnight for observation, though he was said to have been keen to get back to the circuit in time for qualifying before being dissuaded by his team. "He really wants to be out there, but it would not be the best thing for him," team principal David Richards said.
Button told team members: "All weekend I was going for the front row here, and I really think I had a good shot at it. It's a great shame, because the car has felt really good here." He may still start from the pit lane this afternoon.
Only after all the race strategies have been played out will it finally become clear who did the best job, but it may be many laps into the race before Michael Schumacher's chances of equalling Ayrton Senna's six wins in the Principality become fully clear.Reuse content