Italians keep Renault at bay on French team's home turf
Michael Schumacher took his 68th pole position in Magny-Cours on Saturday, underlying that his success in Indianapolis was not just due to any Michelin conservatism but also Bridgestones improved performance. The former champion looked strong all day and lapped his Ferrari in 1m 15.93s to seal the issue just as arch-rival Fernando Alonso posted 1m 15.785s for Renault and Michelin. It was not quite the result that the partisan crowd had expected, and it will be fascinating to see on Sunday which of them has the greater fuel load.
There was worse news for Renault literally at the last moment of the truncated session (five minutes had been lopped off to improve the show) when Felipe Massas final run yielded 1m 15.510s, which pushed Alonso back to row two. The Spaniard and Schumacher had staged a little bit of theatre as they scrapped for premier track position on leaving the pits at the start of the final session, but in the end the blues did not quite have the answer to the reds for the second race in succession. Alonso freely acknowledged afterwards that third place was the best he could have hoped for as a track temperature rise gave the Bridgestones a slight edge over his Michelins.
That view tended to be borne out by the presence of the Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher in fourth and fifth places, their best for a long time. The Italian lapped in 1m 16.036s, the German 1m 16.091s.
That left the two McLarens slightly behind, with Kimi Raikkonen battling to sixth on 1m 16.281 and new boy Pedro de la Rosa 1m 16.632s, which left the Spaniard eighth behind Giancarlo Fisichella. The Italian took his Renault round in 1m 16.35s.
Nico Rosberg and David Coulthard completed the top 10, the German taking his Williams to 1m 18.272s, the Scot his Red Bull to 1m 18.663s. Coulthard, however, will start ninth as Rosberg needed an engine change on his FW28 and thus drops to 19th.
Team mate Mark Webber thus makes the top 10 after all, having been bumped from Qualifying 3 at the last moment by Coulthard. The Australians best lap in Q2 was 1m 16.129s, which left him ahead of Nick Heidfeld (1m 16.29s) and Christian Klien (1m 16.33s). Like Webber, Scott Speed found himself pushed down a place right at the end by Rubens Barrichello, who bettered the Americans 1m 17.063s with 1m 17.027s. Christijan Albers had been the final man through from Q1 thanks to a strong 1m 17.105s lap in his Midland.
Q1 accounted for Vitantonio Liuzzi (who lapped his Toro Rosso in 1m 17.16s compared to Speeds best in that session of 1m 17.107s); Jacques Villeneuve (whose BMW Sauber was still in the pits when the session ended); the unfortunate Jenson Button who for the second time in four races found himself booted out early after a lap of 1m 17.95s in his Honda; Tiago Monteiro (who went off-roading in his Midland before recording 1m 17.589s); and the Super Aguris of Franck Montagny (1m 18.637s) and Takuma Sato (1m 18.85s).
For Ferrari, their second front row start in succession was a tribute to the hard work of the mechanics, following Schumachers heatshield fire and a clutch problem for Massa in the morning's final practice. They are both very confident about the race, while Alonso hopes that the consistency of his Michelin tyres will give him the edge over 70 laps. Its going to be a great fight.