Rubens Barrichello gave Ferrari's home fans what they wanted to see in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix; a scarlet car on pole position at Monza. The Brazilian clocked an F1 pole record with 1:20.089, half a second quicker than the Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya. Michael Schumacher was third and Montoya, Michael and fourth placed Fernando Alonso were separated by mere hundredths of a second.
In fine, dry conditions and with the track temperature in the mid thirties, Kimi Raikkonen, winner of the last race, led out in preliminary qualifying. The McLaren set a quick 1:20.501 to start with, the fastest time of the weekend so far. Schumacher followed on and took second with a deficit of just under two hundredths.
The times were very close in the morning practice sessions and the trend continued. Barrichello, the fastest man in the final practice, was five hundredths off Raikkonen for third. Sauber's Felipe Massa was bang on the pace and took fourth with a seven hundredth gap to Raikkonen.
Giancarlo Fisichella, Massa's teammate, was even faster than Raikkonen through the middle and last sectors and took provisional pole with a 1:20.357. Very impressive indeed, over a tenth up on the McLaren -- but there was a lot more cars to come and the track would improve.
Christian Klien was the first Jaguar out and couldn't match the pace, clocking over 1.7 down on Fisichella. David Coulthard flew through the first and middle sectors, fractionally up on the lead Sauber, but dropped in the last to slot into second ahead of teammate Raikkonen, five hundredths off Fisichella's time.
Toyota's Olivier Panis, who will race at Monza for the last time this weekend after announcing he will retire at the end of the season, was slower than Klien to take eighth. Jarno Trulli started Renault's charge with the fastest first sector but he lost the advantage in the middle, then dropped half a second in the last to post seventh.
Ricardo Zonta bettered teammate Panis to take eighth ahead of Klien. Jordan's Nick Heidfeld appeared to suffer some kind of technical problem, his car crawling around the lap and coasting back to the pits.
Montoya was the first Williams and had an absolutely belting lap to clock 1:19.525, beating his own record set at Monza in 2002 for the fastest ever lap in F1 (average speed 161 mph, pole time 1:20.264). His average speed today was just about 163 mph. Montoya was the first into the 1:19 bracket and eight tenths faster than Fisichella.
Teammate Antonio Pizzonia was equally on a charge and took second, a tenth and a half off. BAR's Jenson Button couldn't match the Williams pair but clocked a good third, three tenths down on Montoya. Zsolt Baumgartner's Minardi, which got shunted off track in practice by Jordan's Giorgio Pantano, was over five seconds off the pace.
Alonso, like Renault teammate Trulli, was very quick in the first sector but lost out in the middle. However, the Spaniard picked it up at the end to take fourth. Mark Webber took 12th in the second Jaguar and BAR's Takuma Sato made his presence felt with third, two tenths down on Montoya. He was the fourth driver in the session to be under Montoya's 2002 time.
Gianmaria Bruni was over a second faster than Minardi teammate Baumgartner for 17th, which left Pantano the last to run. The Jordan inched ahead of the Minardis to take the 17th spot. So, after the first session Williams was looking very strong, with BAR hot on their heels. The top 11 were all within last year's pole time.
Heidfeld's problem turned out to be a gearbox gremlin and Jordan worked flat out to get the spare car ready for him. He kicked off the second, final session after failing to set a time in the first, and clocked 1:22.301. Baumgartner missed the first chicane and was two and a half seconds down and Bruni was slower still.
Pantano went well wide through Ascari and posted second, nine tenths down on Heidfeld. Panis had struggled with his soft compound tyres on his first lap but was faster second time around, taking provisional pole with a 1:21.841. Klien was just over a tenth slower than the Toyota to slot into second place.
Zonta was up on teammate Panis through all three sectors and took three tenths out of the Frenchman's time to clock 1:21.520. Jaguar had opted for the harder Michelin compound and Webber took second to split the Toyotas. Trulli was half a second up by the middle sector and took provisional pole with 1:21.027 -- but there was plenty of room for improvement on that.
Massa made a bit of a mess of the first chicane and posted sixth, which was over a second and a half slower than his earlier lap. Barrichello cut half a second out of Trulli by the middle sector and took the top spot with a storming 1:20.089, nine tenths up.
Barrichello now officially holds the record for the fastest ever qualifying lap, as he was quicker than Montoya's 2002 record in today's final session. He averaged 161.806 mph/260.395 kmph. Montoya's faster lap was in the preliminary session and does not count as an actual qualifier. However, Juan Pablo's lap stands as the fastest ever recorded in an F1 car, at an average of 162.949 mph/262.242 kmph.
Schumacher followed on but couldn't beat his teammate, taking second with a gap of 0.54. Raikkonen was also half a second astray of the lead Ferrari, which increased to seven tenths by the time he completed the lap, for third. Teammate Coulthard was slower again, fifth -- were McLaren running a heavier fuel load than Ferrari?
Fisichella couldn't hold his pace from pre-qualifying and slotted into tenth ahead of Massa. But he was only a couple of hundredths quicker than Felipe, so if not for that mistake the young Brazilian probably would have been higher up. Alonso lost half a second to Barrichello in the middle sector but took third, just eight thousandths behind Schumacher.
Button also suffered in the middle sector and clocked fourth, while teammate Sato was nearly identical but edged out Button to take the position by six hundredths. So, to the last runners, the Williams pair. The pace Pizzonia showed in the first session had backed off and he only managed seventh.
Montoya went for it, up slightly in sector one, but the middle sector was again the stumbling block. He was half a second down through there but hurled it home to split the Ferraris for a front row start, second.
"I'm so happy with the whole thing because the car was really good and I was able to take every little bit out of it," said Barrichello. "The car had been showing good potential all weekend. It's never going to be a perfect lap but it was close to the limit. Monza is more about getting it right than getting it on the limit."
Montoya was reasonably happy with second. "It's been a while!" he commented on his front row result. "The team have done a really good job. First qualifying was really fast, but we knew Ferrari could go faster in the second. The front row is good, it's good for the team, we need some points."
Schumacher said he lost time in the last sector: "I think there is not too much to complain about to be third with that sort of situation," he remarked. "I am quite happy with it, didn't expect it honestly. Rubens just did a perfect lap and there was nothing I could do against that."
An interesting race in prospect -- Montoya's Williams has the pace to challenge Ferrari and Alonso is well placed to take advantage at the start. The two BARs on the third row is a concern for Renault in regard to the constructors' standings, but Trulli could well take a few places from ninth at the start.
Raikkonen in seventh and Coulthard 10th was a little less than expected but it really depends on fuel loads and strategy. "We knew after Spa that this was going to be a difficult race but we won the race from 10th two weeks ago with strategy," said McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh. "Today was a little disappointing but we've got some good speed here so we'll see what we can do tomorrow."
Barrichello's half a second advantage appears to indicate a light fuel load -- from Montoya to Coulthard in 10th, the cars were searated by only three tenths, and from each other by hundredths."Given how close everybody is, we were surprised to see Barrichello on pole by six tenths of a second, but we will have to wait for the race to understand what is going on," said Renault's Pat Symonds.
After an investigation, Baumgartner was given a one second penalty for cutting the chicane on his final qualifying lap. He is therefore demoted to 20th on the grid.
Not only strategy may play its part on race day -- there's a chance of rain. How the teams might cope with that is interesting, after running a dry set up for qualifying. However, the rain is reportedly not a major threat. Can Ferrari take a home win at Monza? We will have to wait and see. Final top eight classification: Barrichello, Montoya, Schumacher, Alonso, Sato, Button, Raikkonen, Pizzonia.