Schumacher stays calm with record in sight

Rainier and Albert have been Monte Carlo's princes, but it is the racing drivers who have been its kings. In each era, it falls to one driver to dominate on one particular circuit. Thus it was that in the 1960s Graham Hill's smooth technique, allied in part to Jim Clark's phenomenal poor luck, saw the moustached Englishman win the Monaco Grand Prix a record five times. Subsequently that mark was beaten by Ayrton Senna, who was an equally dominant force in the 1980s and 1990s.

This weekend Michael Schumacher, that most destructive of Formula One's record breakers, stands on the threshold of yet another revision of the sport's history. Where Hill won in 1963 through to 1965, and again in 1968 and 1969, Senna was triumphant in 1987 and then from 1989 through to 1993. Schumacher first won here in 1994 and repeated in 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2001. A win tomorrow would match the late Brazilian's record.

Thus far the auguries have been mixed. On Thursday the seven-time world champion was fourth fastest in the first practice session, only 15th in the second. The first day traditionally means little as far as lap times are concerned, but nevertheless Schumacher was not overly optimistic.

"Obviously, we cannot be too happy with what we have seen so far," he said, "though the results can be partly explained by the fact that we used just one set of tyres, unlike many of the other drivers. But I'm not trying to hide the fact that the situation is not looking too good. At the moment we are too slow and we have to study the data to find out why. There is work to do, but we have enough experience to get out of this situation."

When it matters, this morning and, even more importantly this afternoon when qualifying will determine the grid, he will go as fast as his package of Ferrari engine and chassis and Bridgestone tyres allows. But as he knows better than anyone, a good grid position is critical on the circuit on which, more than any other, overtaking is almost impossible even for drivers of his class. If he does not start from either pole position or the other front-row slot, his chances will be slim.

These are interesting times for a man who is about to start his 238th race, and who must know that barring some sort of corporate volte face, Kimi Raikkonen will be in a Ferrari next year whatever he decides to do. He is also a man who has not won here in five years. Traditionally, Schumacher has expressed no interest in history.

"That is for later, after you have stopped," he said. "Right now, I really don't concern myself with all that. As for winning here, I did not know it was that long ago, but there you go. I don't care what is the past, I just care about what happens this year. And I think we have a chance. "

The drivers are bracing themselves for a chaotic qualifying session today. Under the new system, all 22 drivers have just 15 minutes to set a fast time in the first session before six are eliminated and condemned to start from the back. That has prompted a hectic scramble several times this season but no circuit can compare to Monaco and today's qualifying is expected to be the most manic of the year by far.

Fernando Alonso expects traffic - and luck - to play a deciding factor. The world champion said: "Qualifying will be difficult for everybody. We have 22 cars in three kilometres in one minute - it is impossible that everyone will get a clear lap.

"We have to be lucky. I think it will be the most important part of this weekend but it is always the most difficult part.

"It will be difficult to get the maximum. We will probably have more laps on the track and try to get one of them clear enough to get into the next knock-out. Everybody will do the same - it is impossible to wait in the garage and try to do one lap because maybe that lap is not enough."

A former world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, was looking forward to the first session even less.

"That will be hell, mostly," he said. "The first 15 minutes will be hell."

The BMW-Sauber driver believes a frontrunner such as Alonso or Schumacher could find themselves missing the cut in first qualifying. He added: " That can happen - a red flag, yellow flag, traffic. You can lose two or three seconds."

Monaco is famed as the hardest place to overtake on the Formula One calendar, making a high grid position essential for a successful race. But even so, Schumacher played down the importance of today's session.

"Qualifying for me is not the match winner," he said. "The match winner for me is to have a competitive car and to be in a good position after qualifying.

"Then if you have a good strategy, make use of it to win the race."

* Eduoard Michelin, the 43-year-old chief executive of Michelin tyres since 1999, was drowned yesterday afternoon in a boating accident in Brittany.

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