Qualifying: Happy birthday, Ralf!

Forget the rest: the Schumachers were the only game in town when it came down to qualifying for Sunday's French Grand Prix. Ralf celebrated his 26th birthday by taking his first ever Formula 1 pole position in a breathtaking hour of almost non-stop action, but big brother Michael pushed the Williams-BMW driver hard, stopping the clocks just 0.01s shy in his Ferrari

Qualifying: Happy birthday, Ralf!

Ralf was the only driver to break into the 1m12s zone - but only just. The 1m12.989s flyer was stunning in anybody's book, but an aborted lap later in the session and an almost half-hearted final run meant the younger Schumacher didn't dent the benchmark further.

As an aside, 30-degree ambient temperatures further thwarted the cause of fast lappery, putting Ralf's achievement into an even more favourable perspective. Before the session, most observers believed Bridgestone already had an advantage over Michelin on the billiard table smooth Magny-Cours track and that the temperatures would merely highlight it. Not the case...

After Eddie Irvine's Michelin-shod Jaguar held the pole in the opening minutes of the session, Ralf laid down the gauntlet with a 1m14.441s lap on the quarter-hour mark, but Michael soon responded with a 1m13.574s. However, those were just the preambles to the main event and with 30 minutes gone, the birthday boy stunned the pit lane with the lap that would stand to the end.

Michael decided to beat the last-minute traffic jam by embarking on his final run with a full eight minutes still to go, and the Ferrari was actually up at the first sector. But as the reigning world champion crossed the timing beam the advantage had been reduced to a deficit of just one hundredth of a section - around four metres in real terms.

As the Kerpen-born pace-setters did their own thing at the front, McLaren-Mercedes made it an inter-team battle for the best of the rest. Mika Hakkinen held on until the closing minutes, banging in a time just 0.279s behind the Williams.

But with less than three minutes to go, David Coulthard wheeled out of the pits for one last run and put in a sensational final sector time, stopping the clock just 0.197 behind Ralf and taking third form his Finnish team mate.

Almost unnoticed, Jordan's Jarno Trulli and Heinz-Harald Frentzen wound up fifth and seventh fastest, easily best of the Hondas as they sandwiched Juan Pablo Montoya in the second of the Williams-BMWs.

Rubens Barrichello continued his low-key weekend with eighth spot after trying for his times early in the session, but throwing away his chance to improve after launching himself over the kerb at the final chicane.

Nick Heidfeld and Sauber-Petronas continued the increase in momentum seen in the morning's free practice sessions to take ninth place, ahead of the BAR-Hondas of Jacques Villeneuve and Magny-Cours expert Olivier Panis.

Eddie Irvine spun out early in the session, but recovered to 12th overall, third best of the Michelin runners and Benetton-Renault showed a modicum of progress by taking 16th and 17th with the new evolution V10 installed.

Frustratingly for Jenson Button, the Englishman had been ahead of his team mate for most of th4 session, but saw a more normal status quo return in the closing minutes when Giancarlo Fisichella sneaked back ahead.

Local hero Jean Alesi had a frustrating hour, suffering a high-speed spin out of the Imola Chicane and failing to get in the groove as he struggled to 19th overall.

In the battle for last, Tarso Marques was a conclusive winner, trailing his Minardi team mate Fernando Alonso by nearly half a second.

For full qualifying results, click here.

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