Schumacher has to raise the bar

San Marino GP: Ferrari show improvement but Raikkonen and Alonso set the pace

The timesheets here had an all too familiar look to them for much of yesterday's preliminary qualifying session for today's San Marino Grand Prix here. Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were fastest, and everyone else was scrabbling to beat them.

Schumacher had been fastest in the morning's first session, but was pushed down in the second by Jenson Button, whose BAR-Honda has improved dramatically since Bahrain. Neither of them have had great starts to a season that has seen Fernando Alonso and Renault stamp their authority. Both are determined to regain ground before it is too late.

But while there has been almost an air of desperation chez Ferrari of late, BAR were calmly optimistic over dinner on Friday night, albeit fully aware of the need to deliver here. So when Schumacher went very fast early in qualifying - as he retired in Bahrain he was obliged to go out fifth here when the track was dirty and therefore not at its peak - and lapped in 1min 20.260sec, it was a surprise when Button, seventh out, failed to go quicker. He had, after all, been three-tenths of a second faster just a few hours earlier, but now his 1:20.464 rated as a disappointment. More disappointment followed later in the session when Mark Webber banged his Williams-BMW round in 1:20.442 before Kimi Raikkonen went fastest with 1:19.886 and Alonso missed out on the best time by a mere 0.003sec after taking his Renault round in 1:19.889.

"I am reasonably happy considering the position we started in for qualifying," Button, who finished fifth fastest, conceded. But the same thing applied to the third-placed Schumacher. If BAR turned a corner in testing in the weeks after Bahrain, then so, too, have Ferrari and their tyre supplier, Bridgestone.

"My lap was going really well until the last sector, when I had too much understeer. At least it has shown that we have made some big improvements and are on the pace," Button said. "It would have been nice to be on pole here again, but if we are in the top five tomorrow I will be very happy because I think the car is strong enough for us to make the best of every opportunity."

Schumacher admitted he, too, was relatively happy, "given that, if we have slightly a weak spot, it is in the one-lap performance. I think we can be in the fight for the win. It will be tight and tough, but the opportunity is there."

While Schumacher and Button prepare to re-enact their battle here last year, the danger men are Raikkonen and Alonso. With only 1.113sec covering the first 12 cars, there are going to be grid place changes as drivers qualify again with race fuel loads.

Behind the leading quintet, Jarno Trulli was sixth for Toyota yesterday, ahead of Sauber-Petronas' Felipe Massa, Juan Pablo Montoya's McLaren-Mercedes stand-in, Alexander Wurz, Webber's team-mate Nick Heidfeld and Button's partner, Takuma Sato. Massa will drop 10 places wherever he qualifies because Sauber had to change his engine on Friday night.

Joining the bouncy little Brazilian in race-day purgatory will be the Melbourne winner, Giancarlo Fisichella, who also started qualifying early after retiring in Bahrain, then compounded that with a rare error. The fact that a smooth old hand like Fisichella can slip up like that underlined the job the rookie Tonio Liuzzi did to lap only two-tenths shy of his Red Bull team leader, David Coulthard, even though Liuzzi was the first man out and the Scot ran at a time when the track conditions were significantly better. Everyone will all fight even for a one-place improvement, for track position is crucial here.

Imola is another of those older tracks where overtaking is very, very difficult unless the guy in front makes an error. "In the old days, an awful lot of overtaking moves came when the driver in front missed a gear but did not own up to doing that," mused the Williams engineer Frank Dernie. "Now, of course, the semi-automatic gearboxes have made mistakes like that a thing of the past, and that's one reason why we don't see so much passing these days."

Translated from his verbal Morse code, Raikkonen said he felt the McLaren was better suited to Imola than any of the previous tracks this year, and clearly expects to stay close to the front. Given the race pace McLaren have demonstrated elsewhere, he will be a strong contender. And so, of course, will Alonso. He is far too experienced to be concerned about the tiny deficit to the Finn. "Historically this has been quite a tough track for our team so it is a nice surprise not only to be competitive, but fighting for pole position."

A third consecutive victory for the Spaniard is a definite possibility, but not if Raikkonen, Schumacher and Button have a say.

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