A dangerous old tiger roamed the streets of Monte Carlo yesterday, as Michael Schum-acher showed that his old fire still burns by pipping Mark Webber for pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix.
It has been a very hard road back to full competitiveness for the man who once ruled the Formula One world in his own inimitably imperious style, and many times he has looked a shadow of his former self, embarrassed by younger team-mate Nico Rosberg. But yesterday we saw the old Schumi, and he performed at exactly the right time, in the right place.
Webber had moved to the top of the timesheets with 1m 14.381s, which seemed to have thrown the issue beyond challengers Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Romain Grosjean, but suddenly there was Schumacher, stopping the watches in 1m 14.301s. Going fastest for the 70th time.
"I leave it to others to say what this pole position means," he said. "I'm excited and very happy because it confirms what I have felt for a long time since I came back. I'm more than thrilled and excited, because Monaco is for all of us the track of the year. To manage pole here after what I have gone through during the last two and half years isfabulous.
"I saw the time on the dashboard and thought that it would not be too bad, but who might yet go quicker? I was watching the monitors all around the track, and then I got confirmation over the radio. I hadn't been confident of pole this morning but everything seemed to work together and the car came to perfection as a result of team effort."
Prince Albert's backyard is the place where everybody aspires to win. The late Ayrton Senna achieved the feat six times; Schumacher is tied on five wins with Graham Hill, "Mr Monaco". Winning here gives any driver lasting credibility.
"Probably you put Monaco as being so special because we all call it a little bit more of a driver track, where the driver can still make a difference," Schumacher continued, "but particularly because of the prestigious atmosphere and what that means to us. It's super fantastic if you manage to do such a lap, but we've seen how close qualifying is... Everything had been prepared by the team and I managed to put it all together. It was just beautiful. And it was good to remind people that I'm still around."
It was quite the most convincing performance of his oft-troubled comeback, but there was hair on the cake. It came in the form of the five grid place penalty that he incurred in the recent Spanish Grand Prix, where he crashed into the back of Bruno Senna's Williams at the end of the main straight.
Thus Schumacher drops from first to sixth, as Hamilton did in China, promoting Webber to pole with Rosberg for company on the front row of the grid, followed by Hamilton and Grosjean, while Fernando Alonso will share row three with Schumacher after just outpacing his resurgent team-mate, Felipe Massa.
Schumacher was surprisingly calm and upbeat as he smiled ruefully. "I always said that the plan coming here was to set pole position, start sixth and win it," he said. "Most likely it will be only a one-stop strategy, so we will only have a small window to play with, so we know that will be a tough thing to achieve, but we have DRS and KERS so we might as well try. Let's see what happens."
Webber's form will be watched at close range by Hamilton this afternoon, as increasing speculation says that there will be some seat changing in 2013. Webber is favourite to join Alonso at Ferrari for a year, Massa's return to form notwithstanding, opening the way for Hamilton to jump into the Adrian Newey-designed car that he is said to crave.
Insiders in Italy further suggest that the reason for Webber's singleton season in red is Sebastian Vettel. The world champion was a deeply troubled 10th fastest yesterday, all at sea in the same tyre troubles boat that contained an unhappy Jenson Button who couldn't manage better than 13th; the insiders are adamant that the German has signed an option with Ferrari for 2014, subject to competitive form from the Prancing Horse stable for the rest of 2012.
Whether that's all fanciful speculation remains to be seen. As do Schumacher's chances of adding his 92nd grand prix victory to a career that had until yesterday been getting ever so slightly tarnished.
1 M Webber 1min:14.381secs; 2 N Rosberg 1:14.448; 3 L Hamilton 1:14.583; 4 R Grosjean 1:14.639; 5 F Alonso 1:14.948; 6 (placed); M Schumacher 1 14.301 7 F Massa 1:15.049; 8 K Raikkonen 1:15.199; 9 S Vettel no time taken; 10 N Hülkenberg 1:15.421; 11 K Kobayashi 1:15.508; 12 J Button 1:15.536; 13 B Senna 1:15.709; 14 P Di Resta 1:15.718; 15 D Ricciardo 1:15.878; 16 J Vergne 1:16.885; 17 H Kovalainen 1:16.538; 18 P Maldonado 1:15.245; 19 (placed) V Petrov 1:17.404; 20 T Glock 1:17.947; 21 P de la Rosa 1:18.096; 22 C Pic 1:18.476; 23 N Karthikeyan 1:19.310; 24 S Perez no time taken