Red, white and blue front row for Sunday's Monza race
When Juan Pablo Montoya recorded the fastest-ever lap of the Autodromo di Monza in pre-qualifying this afternoon - 1m 19.525s - and Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello were well down the order with 1m 20.528s and 1m 20.552s respectively, Ferraris prospects did not look too rosy for their home Grand Prix.
It transpired, however, that the Scuderia had run at least one of their cars close to qualifying configuration as far as fuel load was concerned. When the chips were down Rubens Barrichello delivered handsomely with the fastest-ever qualifying lap, both at Monza and in Formula One history. 1m 20.089s was sufficient to put him at the head of the field, to his obvious delight.
And for a long time Schumachers 1m 20.637s lap seemed set to keep him on the front row, as Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Takuma Sato and Antonio Pizzonia all tried and failed to dislodge him. But then came Montoya, who in pre-qualifying had averaged an incredible 262.242 kph or 162.952 mph around Monza.
It was an interesting session, as the Ferraris minimised their problem with Bridgestones tyre taking longer than Michelins to reach optimum temperature. Both Williams looked strong in the first sector, seemed to lose ground in the second - Pizzonia lost seven-tenths in the two Lesmos - and then making ground up again in the final sector. Montoya appeared to have failed in his quest to beat Schumacher after the first two sectors had dropped him down, but clung on to beat him by a fraction with a lap of 1m 20.620s.
It now remains to be seen just who was running what fuel load, as Alonso lines up fourth on 1m 20.645s, with Sato and Button sharing row three with times of 1m 20.715s and 1m 20.786s respectively. Raikkonen and Pizzonia, on row four, recorded 1m 20.877s and 1m 20.888s.
There was disappointment for Jarno Trulli, who did not look like recapturing his Spa pole-winning form as he settled for 1m 21.027s in the first R24 chassis (which replaces his Spa car), and David Coulthard matched Raikkonen for the first two sectors before dropping back to 1m 21.049s. Ricardo Zonta was happy with his 1m 21.520s which made him Toyotas top dog in 11th place ahead of Mark Webber, on 1m 21.602s. Olivier Panis was close to his Brazilian team-mate with 1m 21.841s, while Christian Klien wasnt far off Webber in the other Jaguar as he lapped in 1m 21.989s.
Qualifying was a bit of a disaster for Sauber. Clearly they ran higher than average fuel loads, but had expected better than Giancarlo Fisichellas 15th place on 1m 22.239s and Felipe Massas 16th on 1m 22.287s. The Italian said he was too cautious in the second sector then spoiled his braking for Parabolica; the Brazilian ran wide entering the first chicane and immediately compromised his lap.
Nick Heidfeld shaded Jordan team mate Giorgio Pantano, 1m 22.301s to 1m 23.239s after the Italian ran very wide exiting Ascari, and at Minardi Zsolt Baumgartner likewise out-qualified local boy Gianmaria Bruni, 1m 24.808s to 1m 24.940s. However, Baumgartners time may yet be amended as he cut the first chicane while setting it.
So, thats the grid, but it is going to be a very hard race to call. Montoyas late run will certainly not have helped Schumacher, who also has Alonsos fast-starting Renault alongside, and the BARs are nicely poised to exploit any bottleneck in the first chicane. It may well be that he who emerges from that without damage may find himself nicely placed for his afternoons work.