He admitted that he thought he was still dreaming when the telephone call came telling him that he was required to replace Ralf Schumacher in the Williams line-up at Monza, but Marc Gene could not have imagined quite how successful his first day back in competition would be.

Despite having to play himself in during free practice - having only just made it to the circuit in time to get acquainted with the German's regular mount - Gene still ended the two 45-minute sessions with the third best time, and then went on to turn in a solid qualifying performance after running as first man on the road.

Schumacher was slated to run second after missing the chicane, so Gene's lack of recent results only made a little difference to when he would be on track, but the Spaniard made the most of his opportunity by remaining on top of the pile until the final five runners ventured out. Then, with Cristiano da Matta making a mess of his lap, Gene was guaranteed a top five starting slot. Ever the perfectionist, however, the former Minardi driver was less than enamoured with his effort.

"My qualifying lap wasn't the best ever, as I made a couple of mistakes in the first and second chicanes," he said, before finding reason to be cheerful,"My best qualifying in F1 before this was 15th, so I can't be too unhappy.

"I thought I was still dreaming this morning when I was woken by a call telling me that I was standing in for Ralf. I was fortunate to test on this track last week and, it is also beneficial that, besides my job as test driver, I have been busy racing in other series and have plenty of race practice."

Gene will play an important part in the race for, with no championship aspirations of his own, he can play a full supporting role to team-mate Juan Montoya, who starts second.

"Marc did an amazing job, especially as he started first, and the track improved a lot during the session," an appreciative Colombian noted.

BMW motorsport director Gerhard Berger was also happy with the performance turned in by his stand-in driver.

"Every test driver hopes to get the chance to compete in a race, even if on very short notice," he said, "This was Marc's chance to use his opportunity, and he made an excellent job of it in qualifying."

Schumacher reported last night that he was suffering from headaches after running for the first time since his testing accident at Monza last week. In consultation with F1 doctor Sid Watkins, the German and his team decided that discretion should be the better part of valour on this occasion, effectively ending his championship chances for 2003.

 

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