Renault, McLaren and Red Bull all in the hunt
Renault regained the upper hand on Thursday afternoon in a practice session that saw the lap times reduced further and several drivers experiencing problems on the streets of the Principality.
Championship leader Fernando Alonso was the dominant player, lapping his Renault in 1m 15.835s, but McLaren test driver Alexander Wurz got close to him near the end with a lap in 1m 15.912s.
Having earlier in the session been upstaged by rookie team mate Vitantonio Liuzzi, Monaco ace David Coulthard got the hammer down to lap his Red Bull in 1m 16.184s to beat Renaults Giancarlo Fisichella (1m 16.519s) for third place. Juan Pablo Montoya improved in the closing stages, to climb to fifth in 1m 16.534s. McLaren team mate Kimi Raikkonen was right on his tail with 1m 16.558s. Liuzzis time of 1m 16.640s held up for seventh, ahead of Felipe Massa.
The Brazilian lapped his Sauber in 1m 16.914s before crashing sideways into the tyre wall at Ste Devote right at the end. He said he did not make a mistake, and it is possible that tyre pressures played a part in the right front wheel being too lightly loaded and locking up, making the car go sideways as he turned into the right-hander. He was unhurt, and the Sauber will be repaired overnight.
Ralf Schumacher and Ricardo Zonta completed the top 10 for Toyota in 1m 16.917s and 1m 17.046s respectively, while Ralfs brother Michael was only 11th after a couple of faux pas in the chicane. The champion pulled out of the running midway through the session with a mystery vibration on his F2005.
His best of 1m 17.170s was enough to beat the Williams of Mark Webber (1m 17.422s), Jarno Trulli (1m 17.487s), who complained of poor grip in the final Toyota, Saubers Jacques Villeneuve (1m 17.506s), Rubens Barrichello (who lapped his Ferrari in 1m 17.663s after earlier spinning in the chicane) and the Williams of Nick Heidfeld (1m 17.667s).
Clearly the times are close, and much depended on the timing of a drivers run on new tyres, as track conditions changed continually throughout the hour.
Christian Klien was another spinner, with a faulty traction control sensor the possible culprit. The Austrian took the front wing off his Red Bull when he hit the inner wall exiting Casino Square after lapping in 1m 18.815s.
Robert Doornbos was the fastest Jordan driver, putting his F3000 experience of the track to good use to post 1m 19.526s, while Patrick Friesacher did likewise in his Minardi on his way to 1m 19.587s which was a good effort.
Tiago Monteiro lapped in 1m 20.284s for Jordan, while team mate Narain Karthikeyan lost all but the last 15 minutes with technical problems in the pits, the Indian having brushed the barriers late in the morning session. He eventually recorded a best of 1m 21.879s.
At the back, Christijan Albers lapped his Minardi in 1m 22.162s before clobbering the outer wall exiting Casino Square and removing its front wing.
This time, Schumacher Snr and Barrichello were joined in their chicane adventures by Albers, Alonso, Coulthard, Doornbos, Fisichella, Friesacher, Heidfeld, Karthikeyan, Klien, Liuzzi, Massa, Monteiro, Villeneuve and Webber. Ralf Schumacher went into the escape road in Mirabeau on one occasion and Doornbos visited the same facility at Ste Devote, but Massas was the only car to sustain serious damage.
Now the teams have a day of rest tomorrow, prior to practice and qualifying on Saturday. With more rubber going down with the GP2, World Series with Renault and European F3 cars all running and contributing to this, and a benign weather forecast, the times will come down further then.