The fist was primed even before the Ferrari crossed the line, but Michael Schumacher wanted to show that he was ready to fight - and punch above his weight - the scrap to retain his Formula One world title.

The German has been under the weather at the Scuderia's home race, but he has not let that affect his performances this weekend. Save for a lowly 19th place in the pre-qualifying warm-up - which may have been a tactical decision rather than a problem - Schumacher has been in contention for fastest time each session, and continued that form when it really mattered, seeing off the threat of title rivals Juan Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen in Saturday qualifying.

Running third from last on the road, after being beaten by both Montoya and Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello in Friday's single-lap session, the world champion knew that he would have to pull something special out of the bag to see of Raikkonen, let alone his Colombian nemesis, who would have the advantage - and the pressure - running last of all.

Responding to the calls from the tifosi and the prayers of his team, Schumacher began as he meant to go on, two-tenths up on Raikkonen at the first split and then a further two by the second. Clean through the Ascari chicane, where a few drivers had slipped up earlier in the session, the German nailed the Parabolica and, with the line in sight, removed one hand from the wheel, ready to signal his pleasure and fighting spirit as he passed the pits.

Barrichello's response was already those two-tenths down at the opening split, putting him on a par with Raikkonen, but, not losing any more time around the rest of the lap, the Brazilian left Montoya with the unenviable task of trying to at least deny the home fans an all-red front row.

Knowing that having the second Ferrari ahead of him on Sunday could leave him open to all manner of tactics, Montoya pulled out all the stops. Fractionally quicker than Schumacher through the first sector, the 0.003secs advantage had grown to 0.076 approaching the Ascari chicane. A slight twitch on exit was treated with the usual Montoya nonchalance but made its presence felt as the Williams crossed the line. The tifosi erupted, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo gave the rest of his team the thumbs-up and Schumacher had pole. By 0.051secs....

Determined not to be left out the championship chase, Raikkonen's lap had been one of pure attacking instincts, the Finn inch-perfect as he launched himself through Monza's three chicanes. Only a touch of understeer here and there held him back, but the lap was still good enough for a place behind Montoya on row two.

The McLaren driver set quickest sector times throughout his lap, becoming the first man to dislodge the second Williams-BMW from top spot. The blue-and-white car had been condemned to run at the beginning of the session by Ralf Schumacher's error on Friday, but was handled with aplomb by stand-in driver Marc Gene, who belied the fact that he has not had to qualify an F1 car for two years or more by leading the session until its final quarter.

Called on before breakfast - paddock legend tells of a sleepy Spaniard getting an early morning call to request his services - Gene played himself in during free practice before ending the double 45-minute sessions with third place overall. Quick again in the warm-up, he used his knowledge from last week's Monza test - and his qualifying practice from the Nissan World Series - to good effect to see off the ensuing challenges from the likes of David Coulthard, Jenson Button and the two Renaults.

He would be joined on row three by one of the blue-and-yellow machines, but it was not to be Fernando Alonso who came out on top of the pile for the regie. Suddenly finding out just how quickly fortunes can change in F1, Gene's countryman - who came to Monza on the back of pole and victory at the Hungaroring - called for a little too much throttle exiting the first chicane and, finding his traction control system wanting, spun away his chances of a good starting position. Although he completed his lap in the hope that others may suffer a similar misfortune, nothing could prevent F1's new wonderkid from starting on the back row.

It was left, therefore, to Jarno Trulli to carry Renault's banner high, and the Italian responded with a sterling lap that was only a tenth off the target set by Gene. Immaculate around a circuit on which he staged a stunning fightback last season, Trulli was in touch throughout, and his flying final sector came so close to moving him up a place on the grid.

Behind the Italian, Britain occupies row four, after Jenson Button built on strong performances in both free practice and the warm-up to annex seventh spot, one better than McLaren rival David Coulthard. The Englishman was never more than two-tenths adrift of Gene through the first two timechecks, and only lost a little more on the run through Parabolica, while Coulthard went some way to redeeming his Friday mishmash by putting in a tidy, if somewhat 'average' lap.

The Scot could easily have remained outside the top ten, but Cristiano da Matta found his lap compromised by tiny errors and slumped to an unrepresentative twelfth, three spots behind team-mate Olivier Panis, who overcame a morning filled with drama and frustration to move in the opposite direction. The Frenchman put a series of engine problems behind him to trail Gene by just 0.07 at the first split and then all but equal the BMW-powered Williams' speed on his way to what would be the ninth best time.

Rounding out the top ten on a good day for BAR and Honda was Jacques Villeneuve. The Canadian had not been happy on Friday, but work overnight and through the free practice sessions gave him a better car for Saturday afternoon, and he followed up his fourth spot in warm-up with tenth in qualifying. A slide at the Lesmo complex showed just how hard JV was still having to push, but he is at least in a position to try and rectify what is fast becoming his lowest scoring season to date. All he needs now is for his luck to hold for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon....

Neither Jaguar made it into the top ten, despite Mark Webber having registered an identical time to Raikkonen on Friday afternoon. Like da Matta, the Australian found his Saturday effort not up to scratch and, with a probable increase in fuel load after Jaguar spent a lot of the morning working on race settings, he would wind up eleventh. This left him four places and seven-tenths ahead of team-mate Justin Wilson, who again failed to get the most out of his R4.

Giancarlo Fisichella, however, got the most - and more - from the otherwise recalcitrant Jordan, the Italian flinging it around the Monza circuit quickly enough to overcome the later challenges of Wilson and the two Saubers to claim 13th spot. His effort will not have gone unnoticed in the Swiss section of the pit-lane, which he will occupy next season, with Heinz-Harald Frentzen sharing row seven with the Jordan, and Nick Heidfeld a couple of places further back.

Fisichella's elevation left rookie team-mate Zsolt Baumgartner to find it out with the two Minardis at the rear of the field - although all three will start ahead of Alonso on Sunday. The Hungarian did a solid job in only his second outing with the Silverstone-based team, but could only split the two black cars, as Jos Verstappen went eight-tenths quicker.



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