Rubens Barrichello sealed his second - and the Stewart team's first - pole position at Magny-Cours, courtesy of a well-timed flying lap.


The Brazilian, along with Sauber's Jean Alesi, was among the first to venture out onto a soaking wet circuit at the beginning of the qualifying hour, and was rewarded with best time of the session. Alesi initially held top spot, having been the first to cross the start/finish line but, although it took him two attempts, Barrichello repeated his morning form to take over with just 11 minutes of the session gone.


The rest of the field appeared to have missed its cue, as the rain - merely heavy at first - quickly became torrential. The Prosts had the best chance to take top slots but, as they had all weekend, struggled initially to record competitive times. As things turned out, however, Olivier Panis put in a lap good enough to remain in third position for the remainder of the session, such were the conditions.


Fourth - and first of the expected front-runners - was David Coulthard. The Scot gradually built up his pace and, despite taking his McLaren for an unscheduled spin across the grass, recorded his best time with just minutes remaining. Team-mate Mika Hakkinen, meanwhile, had to wait until the same point of the session just to ensure that he qualified!


The Finn waited until well into the second half of proceedings before realising that the weather was not going to improve, and then promptly spun before he could set a representative time. After some quick work in the McLaren pit, however, the reigning champion was able to return to the circuit and pip the 107 per cent mark in 14th place.


Title rival Michael Schumacher was another to have to admit defeat in the conditions, the renowned rain-master improving to fifth late in the session, but not without some grasstracking of his own. The German eventually saw his best time pipped by compatriot Heinz-Harald Frentzen, but will be relieved to line up as close to the front as he is - albeit some 2.686secs down on Barrichello. Team-mate Eddie Irvine was the last of the official qualifiers - in 17th - although it remains to be seen whether the race stewards take the conditions into account when deciding the final grid.


Most notable non-qualifier at the completion of the hour was the luckless Damon Hill. The Jordan driver had another torrid session, spinning with some frequency, and having a car catch light, before missing out on an automatic place by just 2/1000ths of a second. His companions on the sidelines at present include both Minardis and both Arrows, and there will be some anxious faces in their garages until the stewards make their decision.


Between those to have set early laps and those not to have set laps at all, the grid has a somewhat unexpected appearance. Giancarlo Fisichella found a time good enough for seventh late in the session, despite not venturing out until the final 13 minutes; Jarno Trulli lies eighth and Johnny Herbert ninth, overshadowed by their team-mates; Ricardo Zonta is best of the BARs, 10th ahead of Jacques Villeneuve's 12th; while both Williams drivers watched their free practice work go to waste in 15th (Alex Zanardi) and 16th (Ralf Schumacher).


Early reports suggest that the bad weather will continue through to Sunday's race, but it can be guaranteed that the leading teams will not be caught out again. Whatever the weather, Magny-Cours may provide the second exciting race in succession.

 

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