Championship contenders Michael Schumacher and Juan Montoya shared Saturday morning practice between them at Monza, taking one session each and rivalling the other when not on top spot.

The main news of the day broke before the session, however, when it was announced that the Colombian's team-mate - and the German's brother - would not be getting back behind the wheel of the second Williams this weekend. Still suffering from the after effects of his practice crash at Monza last week, Schumacher reported feeling unwell last night, and the team, in conjunction with FIA doctor Sid Watkins, took the decision to pull him from the meeting. Marc Gene, on hand in his replacement role, stepped in.

Ferrari dominated the opening 45-minute session of the day, with Schumacher Sr and team-mate Rubens Barrichello taking the top two spots - as they had in Friday's equivalent session. Right from the start, the two scarlet cars stamped their authority on proceedings, with the world champion laying down an early marker and, despite another trip through the gravel, went on to twice improve on that to secure top spot in front of the expectant tifosi Barrichello and Montoya were unable to topple the German, but proved to be his closest challengers, although winding up second and fifth respectively by the end.

Sneaking in between the Brazilian and Colombian were David Coulthard, looking to regain his form around the autodromo after wrecking his Friday qualifying attempt, and Jenson Button, who had made changes to his BAR-Honda overnight and appeared to be reaping the rewards.

Montoya, who also went off the road at one point, was ably backed up by his new race partner who, after bedding himself in with a series of longer runs - knuckled down to honing his set-up. The outcome was a series of solidly quick laps, culminating in sixth spot, just 0.039secs behind the Colombian.

Michelin runners almost filled out the rest of the top ten, with Raikkonen, Alonso and Trulli taking P7-9, but Bridgestone was encouraged to see the second BAR of Jacques Villeneuve creeping into tenth to displace both Jaguars and Toyotas.

The former appeared to be working on a race set-up rather than chasing times, with Justin Wilson and Mark Webber completing 16 and 17 laps respectively in 13th and 15th places. Toyota, meanwhile, was reduced to a single car as early as the opening minute, when Olivier Panis pulled off the track with a dead engine. Cristiano da Matta, fourth in Friday qualifying, was eleventh.

The second session, now timed separately to its predecessor, saw Monza magician Montoya climb back into top spot, turning around a one second deficit to the two Ferraris and producing a 0.118secs advantage heading into final qualifying.

The Colombian did not emerge immediately, waiting in the pits while further changes were made to his set-up, but rejoined with a bang by leaping straight into P7 and then to the top of the order by ducking under 1min 21.5secs. Holding over half-a-second in hand at the end of that lap, Montoya did not improve further, but also resisted attacks from various quarters, not least the two Ferraris.

Although his end of session defence was eased by the advent of a red flag- the luckless Panis having blown an engine after jumping into seventh spot and then running out of road - Montoya knows he will have his work cut out to secure a third straight Monza pole this afternoon.

Schumacher was the ever-present threat, taking top spot from Jarno Trulli ten minutes into the session and then dogging both Kimi Raikkonen and Montoya to the end. The three title contenders would have occupied the top three places had it not been for the impressive Gene, who came out after the fluids from Panis' car had been cleared up and jumped into third spot, just 0.4secs from the pace.

Raikkonen took fourth overall, fending off Barrichello, while McLaren team-mate Coulthard maintained his top six presence, ahead of Panis, Trulli, Button and Alonso. Panis' improvement between disasters pushed Villeneuve out of the top ten and Toyota team-mate da Matta to twelfth.

The two Jaguars continued with their early morning mission, conducting session-highs of 22 and 20 laps respectively as Webber and Wilson swapped places in the order, sandwiching the two Saubers, in which Heinz-Harald Frentzen had a first session off.

Once again, Jordan and Minardi mixed it at the very back, with Giancarlo Fisichella reclaiming his original race car to wind up comfortably ahead of Jos Verstappen, Zsolt Baumgartner and Nicolas Kiesa.

 

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