Schumacher outstrips chasing pack

After all the hoopla that characterised Friday afternoon in Monza, as the Ferrari and Williams technical directors, Ross Brawn and Patrick Head, fought a public spat over the vexed subject of Michelin front-tyre widths, aided and abetted by the McLaren and Renault team principals, Ron Dennis and Flavio Briatore, the on-track action pushed back on to centre stage yesterday afternoon.

Opinions might still be sufficiently divided about single-car qualifying to have prompted discussion about further revisions for 2004, but it worked well enough as all three of the teams contending the championship headed into the Italian Grand Prix confident of their prospects of victory.

To the delight of the tifosi, it was the championship leader by one point, Michael Schumacher, whose Ferrari re-emerged as the pacesetter after his recent period in the doldrums, but Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams), Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) and Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren) were right on his tail.

This was not a good weekend to be an F1 driver called Ralph. On Friday, Jordan's Firman of that ilk was advised not to race on medical orders, following inner-ear-balance problems after his 150mph Hungarian GP accident three weeks ago, and yesterday morning his near-namesake Ralf Schumacher of Williams went medically AWOL for the same reason following a big shunt here in testing last week.

The Spaniard Marc Gene, Williams's regular test driver, who has not raced in F1 since 2000, got an early wake-up call and promptly drove like a star to push Montoya in the morning's free-practice sessions, and then to head the qualifying times (he was first out, since he had not previously run in the 2003 world championship). It was not until Raikkonen, the 16th man in line, lapped in 1min 21.466sec that Gene's time of 1:21.834 was eclipsed. "Until now my best qualifying position was 15th," he said, "but I have to say I did make two mistakes in the first two chicanes, so I could have been quicker still."

Schumacher soon dismissed the Finn's time, however, with a smooth 1:20.963. Barrichello failed to beat that, but then Montoya set pulses racing when his first two sector times beat Schumacher's. But the time slipped away in the final sector, leaving him second and pushing Barrichello back to the second row.

"This is a confirmation of the hard work we have done. We are back at the top, which was shown in qualifying, and this had been our weak part in the last few races," a delighted Schumacher said. "A lot of detail work has gone in on the engine and the aerodynamics, and Bridgestone gave us good tyres."

"It was an outstanding lap from Michael and a good one from Rubens," said Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn. "I thought Montoya would beat us after I saw his second-sector time, because normally they were quicker than us in the third sector. He obviously must have done a mistake." Montoya confessed that was the case. "I had understeer in Ascari and went wide in the first of the three corners. In that moment I knew it was over."

The speed trap revealed Ferrari to have a 5kph advantage, but Montoya said he was not worried about it. "One team make a choice of top speed, the other downforce," he said. "We have applied more downforce."

Barrichello was relieved that his morning grip problems had been cured. "The car was good again in the warm-up," he said. "I was expecting to fight for pole, but we changed the brakes before qualifying and I locked the fronts in the first chicane, probably because they weren't up to optimum temperature. I lost all my time there."

Raikkonen had an uneventful lap in the McLaren, which eclipsed his team-mate David Coulthard by a full second. The Finn was fourth, the troubled Scot eighth, one place behind Jenson Button, who excelled for BAR Honda. "It's fine," said McLaren's engine designer, Mario Illien. "We are quite happy with the second row of the grid. It shows that we are not miles behind. This is the result of a big effort from the whole team, and it is worth remembering that we are usually stronger in the races than in qualifying. Victory is possible."

Whether Ferrari's return to form is due to the minor width revisions that Michelin were obliged to make to the treads of their front tyres, or simply because Monza places a greater premium on grunt (which the Prancing Horse has never been lacking) and much less on sheer grip (which its Bridgestone tyres have lacked) won't be clear until Indianapolis in a fortnight's time. But right now it's time to sit back and watch the fun when today's crucial encounter roars off.

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