Felipe Massa surprised McLaren by taking pole for the French Grand Prix, but the Woking operation had more serious matters on its mind after Fernando Alonso was prevented from setting a time by mechanical problems.

Although initial suspicions fell on the Mercedes-Benz engine in the back of the Spaniard's MP4-22, subsequent reports have pointed the finger at the McLaren's gearbox, suggesting that Alonso may 'only' have a nine-place deficit to make up on team-mate Lewis Hamilton rather than the 19 it would be should he require an engine change.

The double world champion was among those queued at the end of pit-lane waiting for the fuel-burning phase to start Q3, but was also the first back into the pits after smoke began issuing from the rear of the car. Although he remained sat in the cockpit while mechanics worked feverishly in the engine compartment, he was eventually forced to climb out and consider what could be done on raceday to counteract the setback.

Alonso's early exit meant that the battle for pole was reduced to a three-man contest, with Hamilton the sole McLaren taking the fight to a resurgent Ferrari duo. He had already seen Kimi Raikkonen set the pace during fuel burning, but the Briton wasted no time in stamping his mark on the first of the flying runs, passing Raikkonen's time to go top of the timesheets.

His tenure of P1 was equally brief, however, as Massa - who had been baulked by the McLaren in pit-lane as both tried to leave their stalls at the same time - produced a flawless lap to take more than a tenth off the target. The Brazilian had been among the more regular wheel-lockers in practice and the early stages of qualifying, managed to avoid one of Magny-Cours familiar pit-falls as he clocked 1min 15.043secs.

Fourth place also changed hands with regularity, as Giancarlo Fisichella, Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica all held the spot in their hands before everyone pitted for one last set of tyres and a final shot at pole.

The top three returned to the track in the same order, but the showdown proved to be something of a damp squib. Raikkonen and Hamilton both duly improved on their earlier marks, but neither was quicker to the extent that Massa's time was in danger. The Brazilian, conversely, lapped slower than he had, but was already safe in the knowledge that P1 was his.

Again, the battle for the minor positions proved as competitive as anything the top three could produce, although, like Massa, Kubica found himself unchallenged in fourth. The Pole improved his time just to make sure, but the real fight was for fifth. Fisichella eventually snatched the position back from Rosberg, the German unable to find the time to respond as he sank to ninth, while Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen both took turns in sixth before the Finn settled there to complete a third row for the home fans to cheer. Trulli's afternoon then took another hit as an otherwise quiet Nick Heidfeld moved the second BMW Sauber up into seventh.

Toyota, however, would have been moderately happy with whatever the Italian could produce, having seen Ralf Schumacher squeezed out of Q2 by another late Heidfeld improvement. The under-fire German was the biggest name casualty of the second session, but joined the two Red Bulls and both Hondas in failing to make the cut.

RBR was again left to rue its ongoing gearbox problems as David Coulthard exited before setting a time. Mark Webber, meanwhile, also succumbed, but more as a result of having lost time to transmission problems on Friday. The Australian followed DC into the pits in the opening stages of the 15-minute session, but only because he had messed up his first flying lap, and then found he could not muster the speed to better 14th in the closing stages.

The two Red Bull machines will sandwich Scott Speed's Toro Rosso entry, which escaped Q1 to secure 15th for its American pilot, and all three will line up behind the two Hondas which, despite both drivers reporting better handling as a result of revisions introduced at last week's Jerez test, failed to produce enough of a gain to make the final shoot-out.

Toro Rosso may have harboured hopes of getting both its cars into the second phase of qualifying after a promising display on Friday afternoon, but Tonio Liuzzi didn't even make it through Q1 after Webber's post-chequer improvement proved too much for the Italian. Liuzzi joined the two Super Aguris, Alex Wurz and the Spyker pair in the bottom six, most having a story to tell.

Although it knew that Takuma Sato was facing a back of the grid slot after his yellow flag misdemeanour in the USGP, Aguri was disappointed to see Anthony Davidson joined his team-mate on the sidelines after narrowly missing out on starting his final flying lap as the chequered flag came down. Wurz, too, will have hoped for better things after working on his qualifying technique in testing, but muffed his final run in the opening sector and had to settle for 17th.

 

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