Blue team still in front, but rivals close behind
Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso set the pace in practice this morning, as a dramatic four-car incident going up the hill to Massenet saw the second session red-flagged with a couple of minutes left to run.
Practice began in fine weather conditions, with a track temperature of 23 degrees Celsius and an ambient of 20, rising to 24 and 21 by the end of the first three-quarters of an hour.
Juan Pablo Montoya continued his speedy progress in the first session, lapping in 1m 16.197s to edge out Giancarlo Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher, Fernando Alonso (who twice overshot the chicane), Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld, all of whom lapped below 1m 17s.
The times fell further in the second session, with Raikkonen immediately recording 1m 16.015s before Schumacher Snr set what was to that point the fastest lap of the weekend with 1m 15.633s. Raikkonen got down to 1m 15.685s, but Montoya blotted his copybook with a spin at the chicane on his first flying lap.
The times came down even more as the level of grip went up. Alonso finally appeared to have set the fastest time with 1m 14.047s, but with minutes left Fisichella beat that by 0.007s to jump from 16th to first, and then topped that with 1m 13.988s, the closest anyone has come so far to Jarno Trullis 2004 pole time of 1m 13.985s.
Raikkonens 1m 14.258s was enough for third ahead of Trulli, who put in a late spurt to lap in 1m 14.322s for fourth. Mark Webber was in excellent form for Williams with 1m 14.418s for fifth, and Ralf Schumacher endorsed Toyotas strength with 1m 14.459s for sixth.
It was the German who was involved in the four-car incident. Following one of the McLarens which was going slowly up the hill, Schumacher Jnr appeared to slow suddenly in sympathy, obliging David Coulthard to pull out to pass just as Jacques Villeneuve was coming up behind him. The Sauber tagged the Red Bull, spinning it into the Toyota and the track was almost blocked. None of the drivers were hurt and damage was relatively light to the machinery, and since it was so close to the end of the session there was no restart after the red flag.
Montoya ended his morning seventh with 1m 14.543s ahead of Coulthard on 1m 14.582s, Schumacher Snr on 1m 14.961s and Vitantonio Liuzzi in the second Red Bull on 1m 14.998s.
It was noticeable that while the Michelin runners seemed to flow their way around, Schumacher was having to wring everything out of his Bridgestone-shod Ferrari. The champion was driving at the very top of his form, and his car control was wonderful to watch.
Nick Heidfeld was 11th for Williams on 1m 15.196s, with Rubens Barrichello half a second slower than that on 1m 15.637s.
Felipe Massa was the quicker Sauber on 1m 16.123s, but Villeneuve was right with him on 1m 16.148s, in 13th and 14th places.
There was elation at Minardi as Patrick Friesacher did a great job to beat the Jordans after lapping in 1m 18.506s compared to Tiago Monteiros 1m 19.034s and Narain Karthikeyans 1m 19.606s, but Christijan Albers hot lap was spoiled as his Minardi slowed to a halt as it crossed the finish line. He got going later, but his previous best of 1m 19.700s left him 18th.
The times at the top are so close that it is impossible to predict just who will emerge fastest this afternoon, but clearly at this stage this is one the most open races so far this season.