Resurgent Schumacher on pole as record falls

Button heads the challenge to upset Ferrari on home soil

Luca di Montezemolo's arm, punching triumph-antly into the air as he stepped from the pit wall, was a graphic piece of body language yesterday afternoon after the Ferrari/Fiat chairman had witnessed Michael Schumacher giving the hungry tifosi what they had come to see by taking pole position here.

In the process Schumacher broke the record he had held jointly with the late Ayrton Senna, a poignant fact at the circuit upon which, 12 years ago to the race, the legendary Brazilian was killed while trying to keep his Williams Renault ahead of the German's Benetton Ford.

"Yes, it's special for me to set a new record," Schumacher admitted, "but breaking the record is less important for me right now. That's the sort of statistic that you look at when your racing is over. It's the starting position not the statistic that is important.

"We have worked hard because of our misfortune and our mistakes in the last few weeks. We have made up significant ground. This is just one step to the race, but when I see where Fernando Alonso is, it is great for us and our strategy."

Alonso managed only fifth fastest yesterday, a second slower than Schumacher and separated from him by Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa.

The Spaniard has been expected to pose the strongest threat to Schumacher's apparent upturn in fortunes, but in the end that honour fell to Button. All weekend Schumacher and Ferrari have had that air about them that they had in their old days of dominance, but no sooner had the former champion put in his pole-winning lap of 1min 22.795sec than Button came out of the afternoon sun to slap down his own marker, a lap of 1:22.988. Given that he had been struggling all weekend to hone the set-up of his Honda, this was the real surprise.

Button is good-natured enough to smile at website jokes that the Queen is expecting him to win in celebration of her 80th birthday, particularly as it is St George's Day, but the real reason behind his satisfied grin lay in the changes that Honda had made to his machine following a night of serious head-scratching.

"We have really improved the car," he said. "And we needed to, because we were way off yesterday. Our long- run pace was better in practice this morning, too, so I am really happy with the car. We'll also have strong opposition from Renault and McLaren, but we'll see how the race turns out. I can only assume they must be stopping very, very late for their first refuelling stops.

"Altogether, it's a good start, and hopefully I will make good use of it. I'm reasonably confident that we have solved some of our issues, but now we just have to wait and see if we have solved them all. [Today] is the important day, and I'm sure we've made enough improvements to the car to make a difference."

Alonso was not exactly slow, but a lap of 1:23.709 was insufficient to beat Barrichello (1:23.242) or Massa (1:23.702), and only just enough to resist an in-form Ralf Schumacher in the Toyota (1:23.772).

"I don't think fifth is the perfect place to start at this circuit because overtaking is so difficult," the champion conceded, "but we are not in such as bad position either. Now we need to try and make up positions at the start, and believe in the strategy we have chosen."

The McLarens, so blisteringly fast here last year, were also off the pace, with Juan Pablo Montoya taking seventh place (1:24.012) and Kimi Raikkonen eighth (1:24.158), but again they might, like Alonso, have opted to run very long first stints in the hope of gaining track position later in the race. Last year Schumacher had the faster car, but he was unable to pass Alonso as the Spaniard earned his spurs with a fabulous victory.

Of course, this was also the race when BAR Honda's campaign came apart when their fuel tank was discovered to have irregularities. Perhaps there will be a happier outcome for the revamped team this afternoon. But then again, Ferrari may just have opened up Pandora's box again.