Kimi Raikkonen snatched pole position from Michael Schumacher in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix by just two thousandths of a second, turning the cheers of Ferrari's home fans to groans of dismay. The McLaren man clocked 1:21.484 around the Monza circuit and behind Schumacher Nick Heidfeld put in a great lap for BMW Sauber to take third.
Despite the forecast of possible rain it was sunny and dry on Saturday, with a track temperature of 41 degrees at the start of the session. The Super Aguris of Sakon Yamamoto and Takuma Sato were first out, then the Toro Rossos of Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed and the Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher.
The Red Bulls of David Coulthard and Christian Klien and the MF1s of Tiago Monteiro and Christijan Albers followed on. Continuing the formation appearances, the Williams duo of Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber went out next. Liuzzi clocked the first time, 1:24.344, and Speed, Trulli, Ralf and Sato slotted in behind.
Coulthard took over with a 1:23.453 and Klien followed into second. Liuzzi demoted him but then Yamamoto had a left rear puncture and bought out the red flags, as there were bits from the rear of the car on the pit straight. Bridgestone later said there was a cut through the shoulder of the tyre which they believe was caused by debris.
Only eight drivers had set a time and there was a further delay while marshals checked all round the track for debris, as Yamamoto had a long trip back to the pits. He didn't go back out again. Felipe Massa's Ferrari was quickly out on track when it went green, along with the McLarens of Pedro de la Rosa and Raikkonen.
The Hondas of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello joined the action, along with Michael and Heidfeld. Massa clocked 1:22.028 and de la Rosa slotted into second, then Michael went fastest with a 1:21.711. Raikkonen and Heidfeld also posted in the 1:22 bracket and Button took fifth, Barrichello sixth.
The Renaults of Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso were late out and posted seventh and second respectively. BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica was the last man to set a time and started with 19th then climbed to eighth right at the end. Klien spun off the kerbs in the second chicane and came to a halt as the session came to a close.
He'd done enough to just sneak through to the second session but could he get the car back to the garage? Speed in 16th also scraped through but teammate Liuzzi, 17th and a tenth behind, led the list of those to be dropped. Albers was next and Webber was the big name to lose out in the opening stint, 19th. Monteiro, Sato and Yamamoto completed the line up.
Michael remained fastest from Alonso and Raikkonen, then the times were cleared for the second session -- Klien couldn't make it back to the pits and had to miss out. Kubica was the first man out and clocked 1:21.617 and Speed took second. Alonso took over with a 1:21.526, while Heidfeld posted third and Fisichella fourth.
Trulli was fifth and de la Rosa took sixth, while Ralf, Rosberg, Coulthard and Speed made up the top 10 with seven minutes to go. Raikkonen went to the top with a 1:21.349 and Michael took second but meanwhile, Massa was on a hot lap. He clocked 1:21.225, just over a tenth up on Raikkonen. Speed improved his time but stayed 15th.
Barrichello and Button were in the top 10 but there was the potential for them to be dropped out by others. Ralf couldn't do it and stayed 12th but Trulli moved up a place to ninth then de la Rosa took the place, pushing Button out but the Honda man was on a flyer. Heidfeld was fourth and teammate Kubica jumped up to second.
Button snatched seventh at the last minute, and Barrichello eighth, while Fisichella and de la Rosa just made it through in ninth and 10th. Trulli got bumped out to 11th and led the next six to drop out. Rosberg, Ralf, Coulthard and Speed followed on and Klien will start 16th. Massa remained at the top from Kubica and Raikkonen.
With the times cleared and race fuel on board, the remaining 10 cars went out for the final 15 minutes. Massa led and times were in the 1:25 area to start with while everyone burned off fuel. Button took over with a 1:24 lap, while Alonso went straight on at the first corner with a right rear puncture and had to limp back to the pits, the car damaged at the rear.
Meanwhile, the others were starting to go in for tyres ready for the last charge for pole. Massa was the first on a flyer and clocked 1:21.704, while Michael slotted into second. Raikkonen took the top spot with a 1:21.621 and Alonso got back on track but only managed eighth, although it was one ahead of Fisichella.
Alonso had just enough time to duck into the pits and change tyres and crossed the line to start his last flyer with two seconds to spare. Michael clocked 1:21.486 and the crowd went bonkers but Raikkonen flew round and posted 1:21.484 and that was pole position. Alonso made a reasonable recovery and took fifth but he's got Massa in front.
A good effort by Raikkonen to take pole by a tiny margin, although he believes it could have been better. "It wasn't a clean lap," the Finn commented. "I had quite a big moment twice in Ascari, but it was quick enough for pole and I think we have a good race car also. I think it's going to be down to the tyres -- which tyre will last better and be strong in the race."
Michael was disappointed to lose out on the pole. "The car is going very well," he said. "We were already quite strong at the test, quite consistent, so it's a comfortable position to be in. Obviously, with a margin of two thousandths of a second it's a tight battle and would have been nice to have been on pole here at our home Grand Prix, but more important to try and achieve (the win) tomorrow."
Michael's got some space between himself and Alonso but Alonso could well make inroads at the start. He certainly needs to get ahead of Massa if nothing else, otherwise the Brazilian will no doubt do his best to hold the Renault up. Heidfeld did a stellar job to get his BMW third, BMW's best qualifying result so far, while Kubica was seventh.
"Starting third of course you could argue that you want to finish third and of course that is my target," said Heidfeld. "But I think it is going to be difficult and in the long run we will not look as strong as we do now after qualifying, but more importantly we can really see a good trend over the last couple of races we have really improved heavily with the podium and then in the last race I was a bit unlucky."
Button landed a reasonable sixth and Barrichello was three behind but Honda doesn't appear to have the speed of the front runners. De la Rosa was eighth and Fisichella a disappointing 10th but, as always, we'll have to wait and see what strategies will play out. If Raikkonen can maintain the lead for a while, if not the whole race, he could be a key factor.
Alonso[*] was compromised by his puncture and could well have been further up, while the top five were within a second and Button was only just outside it, so there should be a good scrap for the podium positions. Final top ten classification: Raikkonen, M. Schumacher, Heidfeld, Massa, Alonso, Button, Kubica, de la Rosa, Barrichello, Fisichella.
[*]Note: see Alonso penalised, demoted to 10th on grid