Raikkonen edges Alonso by just 0.003 seconds
For much of this afternoons first qualifying session here in Imola, it was quite like old times. Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were fastest, and everyone else was scratching to beat them.
Jenson Button, the much fancied runner this weekend after BAR s major improvement, tried and came up short with 1m 0.464s compared to the champion s 1m 0.60s. Neither of the Toyotas got close, and so it came down to whether Kimi Raikkonen or Fernando Alonso could get the job done.
The Finn was the first man to dip below 1m 0s when he took his McLaren round in 1m 19.886s, the closest anyone got to Button s 004 pole position of 1m 19.753s. After Trulli s run yielded 1m 0.49s, it remained only for Alonso to attack. The Spaniard was his usual smooth self, and though neither of his first two sector times beat Raikkonen s, his third brought the Renault tantalisingly close as his lap stopped the clocks in 1m 19.889s, a mere 0.003s off the McLaren.
Button seemed set to hold on at least to fourth place, but he was pipped by Mark Webber. The Australian s lap matched team mate Nick Heidfeld s in the first two sectors, but he picked up four tenths in the last one to vault into fourth with 1m 0.44s. Trulli s lap left him sixth ahead of Felipe Massa, who did a great job to push his revitalised Sauber to 1m 0.593s (though he has a 10 grid place penalty to pay tomorrow after having to have his engine changed last night). Alexander Wurz had to run when the track was at its dirtiest, as the newcomer at McLaren, and thus did a fine job to take eighth on 1m 0.63s. Heidfeld s 1m 0.807s left him ninth, and Takuma Sato was 10th on 1m 0.851s in the second BAR.
It was Rubens Barrichello s lap time of 1m 0.89s that highlighted Ferrari s likely strategy, suggesting that while Schumacher opted for the softer Bridgestone tyre in the interest of track position, the Brazilian may have gone for the hard to give the champions a foot in each camp. He was just ahead of Ralf Schumacher, the German lapping in 1m 0.994s. Had he not made a small error that cost him a couple of tenths, Jacques Villeneuve would have improved on 1m 0.999s and could have edged out Heidfeld for ninth.
David Coulthard was 14th in the leading Red Bull (which will be powered by the Ferrari engine in 006), with 1m 1.63s, while Giancarlo Fisichella really spoiled his weekend by making a big error in the second sector. The Italian was running when the track was dirty, thanks to his piston failure in Bahrain, and suffered the consequences when he pushed too hard. In contrast, rookie Tonio Liuzzi did a very strong job to lap his Red Bull only two tenths slower than Coulthard s, despite the handicap of having to run at the start of the session when the track had yet to reach its best.
Narain Karthikeyan once again beat Jordan team mate Tiago Monteiro, with an excellent lap of 1m 3.13s compared to the latter s 1m 5.100s. Christijan Albers was also in great form, lapping his new and still unsorted Minardi PS05 in 1m 5.91s, but Patrick Friesacher added to his lap time of 1m 6.484s after running wide exiting the Variante Alta.
The times are so close all down the field that clean laps and race fuel strategy will play key roles in determining the grid tomorrow morning, with Schumacher looking desperately for a front-row start, and a lot of dangerous rivals intent on frustrating his hopes.