SCHUMACHER SETS PACE AT NEW-LOOK MONACO The Monaco circuit might have changed this year but there was a familiar name at the top of the timesheets after the first official qualifying session. World champion Michael Schumacher is chasing his 68th...
SCHUMACHER SETS PACE AT NEW-LOOK MONACO
The Monaco circuit might have changed this year but there was a familiar name at the top of the timesheets after the first official qualifying session. World champion Michael Schumacher is chasing his 68th Formula One victory this weekend and got off to a flying start with a searing 1m 16.305s lap that gave him the advantage of starting last -- when track conditions will theoretically be at their peak -- in Saturday's decisive shoot-out. Schumacher's team-mate Rubens Barrichello was second and Jenson Button (B*A*R-Honda) took third.
Michelin partner Renault is expected to excel on the streets of the principality this weekend and Jarno Trulli made the most of his well-balanced R23 chassis to net fourth fastest time, little more than half a second adrift of Schumacher. His team-mate Fernando Alonso was spectacular, but his enthusiasm led to a couple of time-consuming errors that left him only 14th. Both Renault drivers clipped the guardrail during the morning's test session but neither chassis was badly damaged.
David Coulthard won this race for Michelin last season and spearheaded today's McLaren-Mercedes challenge with a neat, tidy lap that netted fifth place. His world championship-leading team-mate Kimi Räikkönen pulled off a spectacular save to keep his car out of the barriers as he wriggled through the swimming pool complex and ended up 11th.
Ralf Schumacher (sixth) was quickest of the BMW WilliamsF1 Team/Michelin drivers. Team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya flirted with the barriers on the new-look approach to the tight right-hander at Rascasse -- the most radical change to the Monaco track layout since 1973 -- and had to settle for eighth.
Of the other Michelin runners, Mark Webber (Jaguar, ninth) lost out as a result of running first on a track freshly laid with slippery cement dust after previous runner Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Sauber-Petronas) suffered an engine failure. The session was halted for more than 20 minutes while marshals cleaned the track. Webber's team-mate Antonio Pizzonia crashed at Massenet during the morning test session but bounced back to qualify 15th.
Olivier Panis was 18th for Toyota after running wide at Portier -- but his team-mate Cristiano da Matta faced the most daunting task of all. He had just one hour in which to learn F1's most testing track before having to make his qualifying run. Unsurprisingly he found the going tough and was slowest of the drivers who managed to complete a lap.
Michelin's day: Pierre Dupasquier -- Michelin Motorsport Director
MATTERS OF PRINCIPALITY
Jarno Trulli (Renault, fourth) was fastest of five Michelin drivers who set top-ten times during the opening qualifying session for this weekend's Monaco Grand Prix. Michelin motorsport director Pierre Dupasquier said: "We have seen some quite bizarre things today and have plenty to think about between now and Saturday. For instance, cars on Michelin tyres set some ultra-competitive times during free practice, but not all of them maintained their pace this afternoon, even though track conditions have not changed substantially."
"Mark Webber's morning time for Jaguar would have made him a pole contender, but he was unlucky to qualify just after the track had been coated with oil. Williams-BMW driver Ralf Schumacher found one second between sessions, which was to be expected, but David Coulthard's McLaren lost six tenths, which wasn't. It was a very unusual session."
This year the Monaco track incorporates its most radical layout change since 1973 -- but this has posed no concerns so far for Michelin. Pierre Dupasquier: "The track has altered a little in character as well as layout, because an extensive section has been resurfaced. We were slightly worried that this might make it more abrasive than it used to be, which was what happened when we raced on a new surface at Imola earlier this season, but from what we have seen so far that doesn't appear to be the case. We have four different types of dry-weather tyre this weekend. One of them appears to be particularly well suited to the conditions, but that doesn't mean it will be the only option our partner teams choose."
David Coulthard won last year's Monaco GP at the wheel of a McLaren-Mercedes fitted with ultra-soft Michelin tyres -- and the Clermont-Ferrand engineers have taken a similar approach this year. Pierre Dupasquier: "I think we have been even more aggressive this season than we were last. The difference is that we have taken several technological steps forward since 2002's corresponding event. We now have tyres that are softer -- but they are also faster and more consistent."