Schumacher in time to take pole

Click to follow
This is a damn fool place to hold a motor race, yet people come here to remind themselves why fellows who drive grand prix cars are a breed apart from normal humans (well, most of them, anyway). And to soak up the vicarious thrill of the narrow little track that threads through Prince Rainier's backyard like a nerve-jangling rollercoaster.

The slightest error is often punished out of all proportion, but its close confines make it the perfect place to watch the artistic juggle between speed, courage, car control and the immutable laws of physics. It's an excellent refresher for the jaded spectator as cars shave the unforgiving walls and change direction faster than a hare on the run.

Your stomach churns and the ground vibrates, and the sheer speed of cars' passage is shocking in its violent intensity. In the cockpits, arms twirl and gloved hands are vibrated by the kick-back through the steering wheel. The air is pervaded by the sickly sweet stench of exhaust fumes and the heat of overworked carbon brakes.

Monaco is also where High Society meets High Speed, and corporate business on a grand scale is done on the yachts that bob restlessly in the harbour, as deals are inked against the backdrop of tension and excitement. It is the perfect place for teams to put across the message that motor sport works as a marketing medium, and for sponsors to make their brand image statements. And that is more than half the reason why drivers turn a blind eye to safety issues they would scream about elsewhere.

It tends to reward pure driving ability, and the order of Michael Schumacher, then Damon Hill, at the head of a top 10 also comprising Alesi, Berger, Coulthard, Barrichello, Irvine, Hakkinen, Frentzen and Villeneuve, was reflective, in many minds, of the overall pecking order. When Hill went fastest with a time of 1min 20.866sec after 47 of the 60 minutes of qualifying, it seemed he might have done sufficient. But his face betrayed his feelings as he stepped from the car and pulled off helmet and flameproof balaclava.

"I just knew I had gone too early," Hill said. "You just can't afford to sit and watch the last two minutes here, but I needed to improve my grid position. I really thought the pole was very much on. But anyway, it's really crucial to be on the front row."

Schumacher played the better game of brinkmanship, pulling the Ferrari out of the pit road with only minutes left. The world champion was at his fluid, spectacular best, and pole position, a vital advantage here where overtaking is often impossible, was his by half a second.

"I was six-tenths off this morning, and I really thought we would struggle," he admitted. "But the track has been getting better. We improved even though we didn't change the car." So benign was he feeling that he took full responsibility for two incidents which punctuated the day. The first came in the morning when he lost control of his Ferrari going through the Sainte Devote corner, and ran head-on into the protective barriers. "I just braked too late, the back of the car started to come round a little, and the road is too tight there. The only way was to go into the barriers." He was unhurt, and completely unaffected.

Later, as he punched the air in delight, he had the intriguing experience of seeing Gerhard Berger overtaking him into the chicane - backwards. "I have to say this is completely my fault," Schumacher confessed. "I thought the session was finished. I saw him in my mirrors, and in the moment I saw him I went on the throttle to go straight on to give him a clear line, but obviously he was braking very late and he spun off."

Depending on how the start goes, Hill may have to play a waiting game this afternoon, to see how reliable Schumacher's Ferrari proves. "We did a race distance in testing last week and the new engine was fine," Schumacher said, his good mood permitting him to indulge in a little humour as he referred to the team's ongoing transmission problems. "Our gearboxes always crack . . . but they last the race!"

As Schumacher aims for a Monegasque hat-trick, Hill may have to settle for second best rather than adding another Monte Carlo triumph to his father's five and ending Williams's 13-year victory drought in the principality. But even second place would keep his world championship aspirations on track. And that would still be one hell of a lot better than a start-line retirement, 1994-style. That's another thing about Monaco: discretion is often the better part of valour.