Finn firm favourite to take Monaco pole on Sunday
After a shunt from Toyotas Ralf Schumacher had stopped the session for 20 minutes while the track at Tabac and the swimming Pool was cleaned up, first qualifying distilled into a battle between the two main pretenders to Michael Schumachers crown: Renaults Fernando Alonso and McLarens Kimi Raikkonen.
After Vitantonio Liuzzi had set the ball rolling with a sliding lap of 1m 16.817s for Red Bull, Michael Schumacher lowered that to 1m 16.186s before Saubers Jacques Villeneuve pared the ante down further to 1m 15.921s. That in turn fell to Nick Heidfeld with 1m 15.128s for Williams. Juan Pablo Montoya had his moment in the spotlight as the first to dip into the 1m 14s with 1m 14.858s for McLaren, but immediately Mark Webber cut that to 1m 14.584s, hitting back for Williams as track conditions continued to improve as the session progressed.
Giancarlo Fisichella in his Renault failed to beat Webber with 1m 14.783s, and then Schumacher Jnr came to grief after brushing the inside wall at Tabac with his Toyotas left front wheel. In a split second the car was thrown across the track into the outer barrier, where it lost both right-hand wheels before skidding to a tattered halt on the entry to the Swimming Pool.
That mistake did not help team mate Jarno Trulli, who had to sit and fidget as the debris was swept away, and had already put some heat into his tyres before his first out lap had to be aborted. When the session resumed Trulli recorded 1m 15.189s, which was only good enough for fifth place at that stage.
Then Alonso and Raikkonen went out, each was under massive pressure. The Spaniard rose to the occasion with all the aplomb of a future champion, pushing the Renault round in 1m 14.125s, but Raikkonen was equal to the challenge and became the only man to lap faster than Trullis 1m 13.985s 2004 pole position time with a superb 1m 13.644s.
Webber thus lines up third for tomorrows final qualifying session (most likely the last of that format as the system could change for Nurburgring next weekend), with Fisichella fourth from Montoya and Heidfeld. Trulli dropped to seventh with David Coulthard eighth after a lap of 1m 15.329s for Red Bull Racing. That placed him ahead of Villeneuve, with Rubens Barrichello 10th on 1m 16.142s in the leading Ferrari.
Felipe Massa couldnt find the grip or confidence on a new set of tyres and was 11th on 1m 16.218s, which left his Sauber 12th behind Schumacher Snr. Liuzzi, who had the worst of the conditions as the first man out, ended up 13th. Behind him Patrick Friesacher kept up his good work for Minardi by beating the Jordans, the Austrian lapping in 1m 18.574s.
Increasing the smile on Paul Stoddarts face, Christijan Albers was also ahead of the yellow cars on 1m 19.229s. As usual, there wasnt much to choose between Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan, and on this occasion the Portuguese driver was marginally faster on 1m 19.408s after the Indian, who has a ten-spot grid penalty for an engine change, had made errors in Tabac and the Rascasse on his way to 1m 19.474s.
Schumacher Jnr has the most thankless task of all tomorrow after his mistake: starting at the back in Monte Carlo. But there was some consolation; after a hearing following this mornings accident involving Montoya, Schumacher Jnr, Coulthard and Villeneuve at Massenet, the stewards decided that Montoya had caused the three-car pile-up behind him by lifting off earlier than normal. By deleting the Colombians qualifying time, they effectively put him at the back of the grid with Ralf. Everyone below fifth place thus moved up one position.
Everything now depends on the strategy that individual drivers choose for final qualifying and the race, and whether they have opted for the hard or soft tyre options. The Monaco Grand Prix is a car breaker, and has so far thrown up a varied qualifying order that bodes well for an exciting race.