Schumacher sets up home front attack

By his own lofty standards Michael Schumacher's record on this circuit is not wonderful. A lot of lesser drivers would sell their children to have one pole position and two wins to their credit here but, for the world champion, it is hardly impressive. Yesterday, though, he took at least one step towards rectifying that by putting his Ferrari precisely where the thousands of red-capped fans who have crowded into the motordrome this weekend wanted to see it.

Schumacher was the 10th of the 20 men to venture out for qualifying. And, when his big lap came, it was smooth, impressive and very, very quick, especially in the third sector: 1min 13.306sec would withstand every attack, and even took Ferrari by surprise.

"It is nice to be on pole again in front of the home crowd," Schumacher said nonchalantly. "To be honest, I am not so surprised to be on pole, but I am surprised at the gap to the others.

"In prequalifying, as usual I was the first out as the circuit sweeper, but I cannot complain as there is a good reason for that. [The order for running in prequalifying is determined by the finishing order of the previous race.] But it does mean that you cannot push to the limit so much for the first couple of corners. Running in the midfield in the second session was not much of a disadvantage and the circuit did not seem to pick up more speed towards the end.

"It looks very promising for us tomorrow when the weather is supposed to be nice and hot and sunny, so I hope we can put on a good show for the spectators."

If Schumacher was matter-of-fact, neither the Ferrari president, Jean Todt, nor the technical director, Ross Brawn, was.

"Michael's second and third sectors were really extraordinary," Todt said.

Brawn added: "Michael drove an outstanding lap. He really is an incredible driver! We were actually focusing our strategy mainly on the race, so what Michael did really is extraordinary." The words were poison to rivals who were hoping that the Ferrari might just be running a bit lighter on fuel load.

Kimi Raikkonen was one of them, pushing his McLaren hard but fading towards the end of his 1:13.690 lap as his Michelin tyres lost some of their grip. David Coulthard was quicker than Raikkonen (as he had been in prequalifying) all the way to sector three, where his lap also went away - 1:13.821 left him fifth.

Fernando Alonso did 1:13.874 for sixth fastest for Renault, and then Jenson Button pushed his BAR-Honda to a strong 1:13.674. But he incurred a 10-place penalty after an engine failure on Friday, so he slipped back to only 13th on the grid.

"It's very disappointing that I'll be lining up on the seventh row tomorrow, as I was quite pleased with my lap and to qualify third was great," he said. "We have a very good car here and it is performing much better than in the last couple of races. My Michelins were working well - not just on one lap but on the longer runs as well. At least 13th place is on the clean side of the track, so I should be able to make good progress off the line.

"There are some good overtaking opportunities here - Turns Two and Four and also the back straight. So I'll do the best possible job from there."

The only other drivers who could have unseated Schumacher were the Williams-BMW duo, Antonio Pizzonia and Juan Pablo Montoya. The former had impressed on Friday in his first race since Jaguar sacked him this time last year, and again in prequalifying when he was second to Montoya, but changes had spoiled his car's balance and he faded to 1:14.556 for 11th place.

Montoya, the 2003 polesitter, stopped the clocks in 1:13.667, enough to demote Button but not to dislodge Schumacher. "I made a little mistake," he admitted. "At Turn Seven, the corner before the stadium, the right-hander, I put the car on the grass and had a big snap there, so I lost a bit of speed on the back straight."

So, will there really be a race this afternoon, or will Michael waltz away? Montoya said he needs more speed, Button has a mountain to climb. But Schumacher was not as serene as he looked. He admitted that he had not approached things properly, but declined to elucidate whether that was on a mechanical, mental or physical level. "Let's just leave it at that," he responded, and that was that.

It is probably academic, anyway. Only a diehard optimist would doubt that he will add a third German Grand Prix victory to his tally this afternoon. It has, after all, been a long while since the gods smiled on any other driver.

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