He's been at the top of the times nearly all weekend and Michael Schumacher didn't disappoint Ferrari's home fans when it came to qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix. Schumacher clocked a scorching 1:22.795 to take pole position and the Hondas of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello shook things up with second and third.
Both McLaren's Juan Pablo Montoya and Williams' Nico Rosberg swapped to their spare cars for qualifying, Montoya because of a fuel pressure problem on his race car and Rosberg due to a crash in practice. Neither will get a grid demotion penalty as their engines were moved to the spare cars as well.
It was clear and sunny for qualifying, with the air temperature in the high twenties and the track temperature in the mid thirties at the start of the session. Several cars were quick to get on track at the start of the first 15 minute session, Toro Rosso's Tonio Lizzi leading the way.
The Toyotas of Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli were out swiftly as well as Rosberg, the Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Yuji Ide and the MF1s of Tiago Monterio and Christijan Albers. Ralf was first to set a time, 1:26.332, then came Liuzzi and his teammate Scott Speed.
Rosberg took over at the top and Trulli clocked fifth, followed by the Red Bull of Christian Klien. Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren set fastest sectors all round to remove Rosberg from the top spot with a 1:24.259. Button's Honda took second and David Coulthard put his Red Bull fourth.
Montoya posted third and Michael was the first Ferrari out, and both he and teammate Felipe Massa made the top six. Fernando Alonso threw his Renault around the fastest of all to take the top spot, 1:23.536, and Giancarlo Fisichella put the sister Renault third.
Barrichello slotted into fifth behind teammate Button and Ralf jumped back up the order to third. Trulli was seventh and time started ticking away towards the first group of drivers to be dropped. Alonso remained at the top, followed by Raikkonen and Ralf.
At the end of the first session Klien was 17th and led the six who failed to make the grade, with Speed, Monteiro, Albers, Sato and Ide also out. The BMW Saubers of Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve just scraped through, as did Liuzzi.
The times were cleared for the second 15 minute session and Heidfeld and Villeneuve were quickly back on track. Heidfeld backed out of his initial lap and let Villeneuve through and the Canadian clocked 1:24.423 to start, with Liuzzi following into second.
Ralf took over at the top and was immediately demoted by teammate Trulli. Coulthard clocked fourth and the McLarens were next on a charge. Montoya went second and Raikkonen posted the fastest yet, 1:23.190, while Button slotted into third, followed by Barrichello.
Michael was the first to break the 1:23 barrier and clocked 1:22.579 for the top. Alonso scored fourth and Fisichella seventh and with five minutes to go Massa and the two Williams drivers had not set a time. Massa was very untidy in the final chicane but still managed third.
Rosberg moved into ninth and Mark Webber left it late to make his move but made it count and took fifth. Heidfeld was making a last effort and went backwards into the wall at the second Rivazza and that was his session over, but the 15 minutes were up. Heidfeld was unharmed.
The big surprise of the drivers to be dropped was Fisichella, who only managed 11th. So much for all the talk about the new B spec engine he's running. Behind him were Villeneuve, Rosberg, Coulthard, Heidfeld and Liuzzi. Montoya and Barrichello made it through on identical times.
Once again the times were cleared and with race fuel on board the remaining 10 drivers headed out for the final 20 minute shoot out. Massa and Michael were up front to start the process of burning off fuel to lighten up for some quick laps on fresh rubber towards the end.
Massa clocked a 1:27.275 initially, followed by Michael, Raikkonen and Montoya. The drivers shuffled around the positions for a while, Michael taking a turn at the top then Massa returning. Not much was happening but at least the Ferrari fans got to see the red cars leading the times.
Button was the first to duck in for new tyres with eight minutes remaining. Barrichello and Massa followed suit as everyone finally started to gear up for the hot laps. Button went on a flyer and finished with a 1:24.159 to post the target time.
Michael was easily faster and clocked 1:23.471 and Barrichello popped up in second ahead of Button. Massa had a trip across the grass at the Variante Alta but continued and Alonso was on a flyer but couldn't match Michael and slotted into third.
Ralf moved up to take the position off the Renault and Michael was on another flying lap. He lowered his time to 1:22795, surely the pole lap, and Massa jumped into third. Button put in a last ditch effort to clock second and Barrichello had a good final charge and went third.
Montoya was the last man to take the flag and posted eighth, one ahead of teammate Raikkonen. Michael held pole position, the 66th of his career to beat Ayrton Senna's previous record of 65, and it was no surprise to see the German there. Massa put in a confident performance with fourth.
"We worked very hard, naturally -- because of our misfortune and the mistakes we made in the last weeks -- to make up ground and here we are, and we've made up significant ground," said Michael. "Obviously the race is important -- this is one step towards it -- but seeing where Fernando, in particular, is it's great for us in terms of first strategy and hopefully result as well by the end of the race."
The Hondas looked handy with Button second and a rather surprising Barrichello third. Button, who was about two tenths off Michael, continued his string of top-three starting positions since the beginning of the season but can they make it through the race unscathed?
The team worked hard over night after a difficult day on Friday. "I'm very pleased with the result today and to see both of us in the top three is great for the team," said Button. "The car was a lot better in qualifying than this morning and the first half of the weekend generally, especially in terms of grip and with the handling over the kerbs."
Never mind a difficult Friday, Barrichello's had a difficult season so far but was happy to get to grips with the car today. "The team has done a great job and in testing they were able to improve the car to my liking and the braking seems to be a lot better so I want to thank the whole team, the mechanics, the engineers, everyone for their effort," he commented. "They know that I'm pushing very hard."
Alonso fifth and Fisichella 11th was probably not in Renault's plans but Alonso certainly has a good chance in the race. Ralf picked up well after his lack of running on Friday with sixth, although Trulli was a little tardy in ninth, and Toyota should be within sight of the podium on Sunday.
McLaren was a little further back than expected but could well be more interested in a race distance than a quick qualifying lap -- the Woking squad is no slouch when it comes to strategy. Webber completed the top 10 a couple of seconds off Michael's pole pace.
It's promising for the race and although anything could happen, if Ferrari's pace is genuine and Michael gets away in the lead, he could be heading for his first victory in 10 months. Want to put a bet on it? Final top ten classification: M. Schumacher, Button, Barrichello, Massa, Alonso, R. Schumacher, Montoya, Raikkonen, Trulli, Webber.