Montoya Monza Polesitter

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MONZA, Italy - Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya made title rival Michael Schumacher seem slow in their first qualifying showdown for Sunday's Italian Grand Prix.

The Williams driver is one point behind Ferrari's Schumacher, the world champion and overall leader, with two grands prix remaining after Monza.

Montoya lapped Formula One's fastest circuit in one minute 20.656 seconds, 0.612 quicker than Schumacher. The German finished third, doing little to ease the anxiety of his fans.

Schumacher's quest for a record sixth title is in danger of stalling at Ferrari's home circuit and he has not led a grand prix since June, a five-race losing streak.

Montoya is, meanwhile, going from strength to strength.

"I wasn't very comfortable with the balance of my car this morning but we made some changes which put it back on the right track and I think we should be pretty competitive now," said the Colombian.

Schumacher's Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello, winner last year in a Ferrari one-two that sent the red army of tifosi spilling on to the track in celebration, was 0.128 slower than Montoya with the second best time.

McLaren's Finn Kimi Raikkonen, two points behind Schumacher in the closest and most enthralling title battle in years, was fifth fastest in 1:21.966. His time was matched exactly by Australian Mark Webber in a Jaguar.

"We were quite quick in last week's test here which makes us confident for the rest of the weekend," said Montoya, who has started the last two Italian Grands Prix from pole position and won in 2001.

The Colombian also set the fastest qualifying lap in Formula One history last year at Monza with a time of one minute 20.264 seconds, an average speed of 259.8 kph.

"We should perform better tomorrow when the track will be cleaner," he said. "It's obviously ideal to be ahead of Michael and Kimi but what counts is tomorrow, not today really."

Williams are eight points ahead of Ferrari in the constructors' championship but arrived at Monza with doubts about their performance after Michelin had to redesign their front tyres to avoid the risk of disqualification.

The evidence from Friday's session was that the Michelin teams had not been disadvantaged by the recent tyre controversy.

They filled seven of the top 10 slots, with Toyota's Brazilian Cristiano da Matta fourth and Renault's Italian Jarno Trulli and Spaniard Fernando Alonso, winner of the last race in Hungary, seventh and eighth.

They could have been more successful had Germany's Ralf Schumacher, back in action for Williams after a big crash at Monza last week, not had his time disallowed for running off and missing the chicane.

"I simply braked too late and went straight on, which was my fault," said Ralf, still a title contender 14 points behind older brother Michael.

"I have tested the modified tyres for the first time and must say they are a step forward for us," he added.

McLaren's David Coulthard was a disappointing 14th and the Scot said he had suffered a downshift seizure at the chicane which wrecked his lap.






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