Qualifying: Brilliant Schumacher beats JPM

World championship leader Michael Schumacher produced a sensational lap of controlled aggression to fend off the stern challenge of Juan Pablo Montoya in final qualifying for Sunday's Italian Grand Prix at Monza

Qualifying: Brilliant Schumacher beats JPM

Schumacher laid down the gauntlet with a superb lap time of 1m20.963s, the five-time champion attacking every kerb with venom in his Ferrari F2003-GA. He punched the air as the lap time flashed up on his dashboard, but his confidence turned to concern as Montoya, the last to go in his Williams-BMW, was a fraction ahead of his time by the second split point.

But Montoya attacked too hard into the Ascari chicane, the scene of a grassy off there this morning, and although he frantically tried to make up the time with an aggressive approach into Parabolica, the damage had been done and he missed pole by just 0.051s.

"It looked pretty good until I got to Ascari and got too much understeer going in," said Montoya. "I lost a lot of time there, and this morning I went quicker than I went just now. It shows we've got the car to compete tomorrow, and I think we're in a very good position. It's going to be very interesting."

Schumacher, who was last on pole at Austria in May, said: "It's the right time to be back [on pole]. We've had our ups and downs in the last few races, and thanks to everyone in the team, they have brought us back into the position we deserve to be in. It's a great relief to have both cars in the top three. It's nice to be back at this stage of the championship."

Rubens Barrichello backed up Schumacher by taking the third spot on the grid, but the Brazilian admitted to a mistake at the first corner: "I made a minor mistake going into Turn 1 and lost some speed coming out, which is a shame because the speed was there and the car was good. I lost out on Sector 1, but the lap was good over the rest of the lap."

Kimi Raikkonen produced a fine effort for fourth in his McLaren-Mercedes, but the Finn was half a second down on the ultimate pace. Team-mate David Coulthard was the seventh car on track today, after struggling to 14th yesterday, but leapt up the order to eighth.

"It was an average lap," said Coulthard. "Hopefully the fuel load should get us back up to the front in the race."

Marc Gene will start a career-best fifth (his previous highest was 15th for Minardi) as he steps into the breach at Williams-BMW to replace the unwell Ralf Schumacher. The Spaniard thought he could have done better, but understeered past the first apex of the first chicane, ending up eight-tenths off the ultimate pace.

Renault's Jarno Trulli produced an excellent lap to grab sixth position, making up for the fact that his Hungarian GP winning team-mate Fernando Alonso spun at the first chicane on his flying lap.

"There was no traction control," he huffed. "We must find out why. Tomorrow is going to be very difficult. I hope I have a normal car."

Jenson Button also produced a fine effort and will start seventh in his BAR-Honda, three places in front of under-pressure team-mate Jacques Villeneuve. Behind eighth placed Coulthard, Toyota's Olivier Panis was happy with his ninth position: "It's getting better and better for us, and I think we'll have a good race car for tomorrow."

Jaguar's Mark Webber fell from his lofty sixth position yesterday to 11th on Saturday. Once again, the Australian struggled to overcome a massive straightline deficit to the opposition, with team-mate Justin Wilson, who was 15th quickest, recording a dire 336kph compared to Schumacher's 362kph through the speed trap.

Cristiano da Matta failed to repeat his Saturday qualifying form, dropping from fourth to 12th in the second Toyota, while Giancarlo Fisichella cheered Jordan's thus-far miserable weekend with a relatively swift 1m22.992s lap, which was good enough for 13th.

"It was a great lap, quite perfect," said Fisichella. "The car was much better today and more consistent. I hope to finish and score points, although it will be difficult. I don't see any reason why our season should now begin to go better, but we'll see."

Sauber's Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Nick Heidfeld were 14th and 16th respectively, with Jos Verstappen (Minardi), Zsolt Baumgartner (Jordan), Nicolas Kiesa (who had a wild moment on the exit of Ascari) and the much-delayed Alonso rounding out the starting grid.

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