Schumacher takes pole at Monza

MONZA, Italy, Reuters

In front of a big crowd of flag-waving Ferrari fans enjoying warm sunshine at the Autodromo Nazionale, the 31-year-old German and his team mate Brazilian Rubens Barrichello traded fastest times before Schumacher emerged on top.

It brought him one pole more than Fangio, with whom he had shared a total of 28 prior to this event. Now only Brazilian Ayrton Senna (65), Briton Jim Clark and Frenchman Alain Prost (33) and Briton Nigel Mansell (32) lie ahead of him in the record books.

Barrichello was second in a Ferrari one-two as he proved he could be a big help to Schumacher in the title race. The German trails defending drivers’ world champion Mika Hakkinen of Finland by six points.

Hakkinen, in his McLaren Mercedes-Benz, was third behind Barrichello and will start Sunday’s classic 53-lap race, the last of the season in Europe, on the second row of the grid.

Schumacher clocked a best lap time of one minute 23.770 seconds, putting him just two-hundredths of a second clear of Barrichello who, in turn, was one-tenth ahead of Hakkinen.

Former champion Jacques Villeneuve of Canada was fourth in a BAR-Honda ahead of Briton David Coulthard in the second McLaren.

“It’s a good thing to have Rubens up there with me and fighting for pole because it shows how competitive we, Ferrari, are here,” said Schumacher.

“It shows the car is good. Rubens can also be a big help to me in the fight for the championship from this position but let’s see first if I am able to get in front — and that it is not me out there racing to support him.”

Schumacher is seeking his third win for Ferrari in front of their passionate fans at Monza, having won in 1996 and 1998.

He needs a victory to reduce Hakkinen’s chances of winning his third successive championship and increase his hopes of taking Ferrari’s first drivers’ title in 21 years, since South African Jody Scheckter won it in 1979.

Schumacher fears that the revised configuration of the first chicane at Monza could cause problems on Sunday.

“Everyone has to be responsible because we all know it is difficult and it could be a problem,” he said. “It is up to us to avoid accidents.”

Schumacher’s younger brother Ralf, in a Williams, emerged as the fastest man on the track in the early stages of the qualifying session.

He was overhauled by Coulthard and then after half an hour by his big brother.

Hakkinen, who said he had engine misfiring problems, was disappointed with his third place on the grid.

“It is not my dream situation,” he said. “But I am not too discouraged. I feel confident.”