After Juan Pablo Montoya's BMW Williams just beat the two Ferraris of Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher to the fastest qualifying lap at Monza, the teams' technical directors went head-to-head off the track as well.
Schumacher might have complained that being the championship leader (just) and therefore the first man to run made him everyone else's track cleaner, but the real heat came when his technical supremo Ross Brawn came under fire, in company with rivals Patrick Head, of Williams, Ron Dennis, of McLaren and Flavio Briatore, of Renault, to justify Ferrari's role in the Michelin tyre argument. The organisers should have sold tickets to that instead.
Ferrari maintained that, when worn, Michelin's front tyres exceed the regulation width, even though they complied with it when they were new. They sought clarification from the FIA, the sport's ruling body. Head, Dennis and Briatore, as Michelin runners, all remain adamant that the French tyre company's products have always been in compliance with the regulations at all times and that they would never knowingly contravene them; they were at a loss to explain why the same basic type of tyre had been passed without demur for the past 38 laps, and had suddenly been deemed worthy of change.
Brawn, whose Ferrari won so many races in 2002 on Bridgestone tyres but has been blown away in the rubber war of 2003, took a different view and defended it trenchantly, and the situation became tense at times. But when he was asked whether he had actually said to Autosport magazine recently that the situation was: "an attempt by Michelin to circumnavigate the regulations and it is now clear that a large number of Michelin teams have been running illegal tyres for some time," he refused to answer directly.
"Our opinion about the situation has been expressed," he said guardedly. "I have given an explanation and I want to try to run the rest of the championship in the best spirit we can and don't want to go back over those comments." Brawn later said he did not believe that Michelin had deliberately tried to bypass the rules, and accused his fellows of paranoia.
He said that Ferrari's interest was solely to keep the series on a level playing field, but Dennis said Ferrari's intervention (leading to the FIA's subsequent reinterpretation of the front tyre measurement rule) had been highly disruptive to McLaren's challenge. "In my youth I saw the film Ben Hur and in one sequence slaves were being flogged to row a boat at ramming speed," he said. "Ramming speed is what a Grand Prix team attempts to achieve at the point at which a world championship becomes as critical as it is now. Anything which influences the rhythm and pace we bring to trying to win, is disruptive. It's very difficult to measure, but most definitely it was a negative influence and that was part of the strategy. But that's motor racing."
Brawn added more fuel to the fire by refusing to rule out the possibility that Ferrari might try to gain retrospective re-interpretation of the same tyre rule applied to other 2003 results - something widely regarded within the paddock as infeasible and precisely what the sport does not need in a season when some brilliant racing has erased memories of staged Ferrari one-two results during their year of domination in 2002.
"I think the fans' patience with F1 would be exhausted if it went through a casino of retrospective re-interpretation," Head said.
With luck, the fabulous mano a mano contest that is in prospect but also in danger of being overshadowed, might make the headlines instead over the rest of the weekend.
Italian Grand Prix (Monza) First qualifying (for tomorrow's race): 1 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1min 20.656sec; 2 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:20.784; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:21.268; 4 C da Matta (Br) Toyota 1:21.829; 5 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:21.966; 6 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 1:21.966; 7 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:22.034; 8 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:22.103; 9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 1:22.203; 10 O Panis (Fr) Toyota 1:22.372; 11 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1:22.495; 12 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 1:22.547; 13 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda 1:22.858; 14 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:23.154; 15 J Wilson (GB) Jaguar 1:23.609; 16 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Ford 1:24.179; 17 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Jordan-Ford 1:24.872; 18 N Kiesa (Den) Minardi-Ford 1:26.299. No time: R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW, J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi-Ford.
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