Time was, qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix was an art form mastered only by the very brave and the very shrewd, who could calculate the precise moment when the track would be clear enough to permit them a traffic-free, banzai lap. Some, such as Ayrton Senna, could do it on all four of the runs they were permitted. It was one of the reasons why the Brazilian still holds the record for the most victories in Prince Rainier's playground, his sixth triumph in 1993 moving him one clear of that other Monaco ace, Graham Hill.
Today is the era of single-lap qualifying. Formula One imported it from America's Indianapolis 500 classic in 2003, and is still agonising whether to keep it or dump it. Yesterday, however, there was no doubt that the format injected a much-needed shot of adrenalin into the season. A record-equalling sixth win for Michael Schumacher seemed almost a formality as the trucks rolled into town, but the champion only got one shot at pole and he missed the bull's-eye.
It may have been a disaster for Ferrari - remember the angst in Imola when Jenson Button had the temerity to pip Schumacher? - but for the sport it was great theatre. Schumacher leading from start to finish is a story calculated to render even a Red Bull-fuelled partygoer comatose. Schumacher having to fight through to victory from fourth place, that's the real deal.
This is how it unravelled.
Schumacher was the seventh man to run. He had complained of a slippery track in prequalifying, where the running order for qualifying is determined, and was only 14th fastest. Now he ran in qualifying when the track was at its hottest (48C), and the result was pole with a lap of 1min 14.516sec. He wasn't delighted, though his only outward problem was slight understeer in the Grand Hotel hairpin. His team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, was the 10th man out and lapped in 1:14.716, so by halfway in the session Ferrari were on target and had the front row sewn up. That was when things began to sizzle.
Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2003 winner for BMW Williams, came up short in his effort after losing time in the final corner, where he had already crashed in the morning - 1:15.039 left him only 10th overall, an insuperable handicap in Monte Carlo. Then came Jarno Trulli, who for reasons known only to himself has adopted a curious new image of bandana and Japanese topknot.
There was nothing silly about his driving, however, as he threaded his Renault through the tortuous ribbon of metal and Tarmac faster than anyone in history. The result was his first pole position and the only lap below 1min 14sec: 1:13.985, to be precise, and indeed the Italian was just that. It was an excellent effort.
Takuma Sato seemed on target to do better for BAR Honda as he set the fastest sector-one time, but he locked up his left-front wheel braking from 190mph into the tight chicane, and a moment of oversteer stole the time he needed. His 1:14.827 left him a disappointed eighth. Fernando Alonso, too, was a fancied runner, but failed to dislodge his team-mate. His 1:14.408 did, however, make it temporarily an all-Renault front row. Giancarlo Fisichella had gone well for fifth place for Sauber Petronas in prequalifying, but 1:15.352 left him further back.
Then came Jenson Button, completely unfazed by any memory of the accident at the chicane that kept him out of last year's race. He too got his BAR Honda below Trulli's first-sector time, but also fell short thereafter. Nevertheless, his 1:14.396 would be good enough to secure the other front-row starting slot.
The McLarens of David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen were next, having gone strongly in prequalifying. But the Scot's 1:14.951 left him ninth, and the Finn pushed through to sixth with 1:14.592.
To all intents and purposes it was over because, whatever Ralf Schumacher did, an engine failure on Thursday meant he had to surrender 10 grid places. But he salvaged some honour from a season in which his talent, motivation and remuneration have all come under the micro-scope by lapping in 1:14.345. That should have been enough to dislodge Button from the front row and to push Michael back to the third, but it was instead the BMW Williams driver who went backward, to 12th.
Just as the infirm were once taken to seaside sanitoriums to recover, so Monaco is the perfect place for jaded motorsport fans to rekindle enthusiasm and fall in love with the sport again. And just for good measure the celebrities were out in force. Sir Jackie Stewart showed Penny Lancaster round, Roman Abramovich played Mine's Bigger Than Yours with his yacht, bike-racing stars Max Biaggi and Troy Corser rubbed shoulders with Lionel Richie and Dannii Minogue. But none were more high-profile than the Ocean's 12 crew - George Clooney, Brad Pitt (but no Jennifer Aniston) and Matt Damon , who breezed into the diamond-infested Jaguar encampment. The punters - and Bernie Ecclestone - loved it.
Weekends like this remind you that, while Formula One might be an old bawd, it can still display wonderful charm.
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