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Motor Racing

Schumacher on pole amid controversy

Guilty verdict after eight hours of deliberation into skulduggery on the Monte Carlo waterfront

Michael Schumacher found himself in the centre of a maelstrom yesterday when he was accused of committing a "professional foul" to protect his pole position, so important here.

The German had lapped his Ferrari in 1min 13.898sec to go fastest late in qualifying. But Fernando Alonso then set the fastest time in the first sector. Previous form had revealed the Spaniard and his Renault to have a three-tenths of a second advantage in the last sector, which includes the slow Rascasse hairpin. There, Schumacher appeared to make an error, locking up a front wheel, momentarily understeering wide, and then opening up the steering again before just avoiding contact with the barrier on the outside. The track was almost blocked, but in any case the yellow warning flags prevented anyone else posting a fast lap.

"I braked a touch too much coming into Rascasse, and couldn't make it round," he said. "I checked with the guys over the radio, 'Where did we end up?', and when they said P1, I couldn't believe it!"

It didn't take long for the dark clouds to roll in on the former champion. Given the "steering errors" he made against Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994, and against Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez in 1997, he should not have been surprised when people started accusing him of a professional foul. "If it was not a credible mistake, it would be a shame," Schumacher agreed. "But as usual, whatever you do in a certain moment, your enemies believe one thing and those who support you another. That's what our sport is about. Some will believe what I explained, some won't. That's unfortunately the world we live in."

Eventually, somebody mentioned the c-word: cheating. "I don't think we cheated today," Schumacher bridled. "I don't know why you ask such a bad question. That's pretty tough. If you were driving a car round here, you wouldn't have asked that question."

And what of Renault's disgust and immediate complaint to the stewards by their principal, Flavio Briatore? "I don't care what other teams do," Schumacher said. "I know Flavio well enough." Indeed so. Briatore was running him back in 1994.

While Schumacher smarted in the press conference, Alonso let his expression speak for him. "We should have been on pole," he said flatly. "The previous lap I had been three-tenths faster in the last corner, so for sure we could have been on pole. I did my maximum with the car and today was OK, the car was performing really well, but after dominating all weekend, to lose pole on the last lap through somebody else's accident is not a good moment."

Did he think any the less of Schumacher after the incident? Perhaps the answer from this honourable individual was the most telling comment of all. "I have my opinion and I won't tell it here." How admirable restraint can be in certain circumstances.

Others were less circumspect. Briatore said: "The only way it could have been a mistake would be if it had been someone's first race, and it's not Michael's first race. I know he cheated. He stopped Fernando getting pole."

Villeneuve said: "It's as bad as Jerez in 1997. It's unbelievable and he should not be allowed to race if he does this sort of thing. For his sake I'd like to believe it was a mechanical failure, but watching TV, no way."

Jackie Stewart, a triple champion, said: "This was too blatant. When you see it in slow motion, turning the wheel one way and then the other, he had plenty of time to do something. This will not damage the reputation of the sport, but it will hurt Michael and Ferrari once again. It might have been more convincing if he had at least taken off the front wing."

At best it was a clumsy error, the sort of thing that the FIA might have banned a poor driver for perpetrating. It took the stewards eight hours to assess copious evidence and to deliberate. Then they said guilty as charged.

In penance for his lack of sportsmanship, Schumacher was moved to the back of the grid alongside team-mate Felipe Massa. Outside Ferrari, there were few in the paddock last night with a word of criticism for the ruling.