SPORT

Maiden pole position for Button

IMOLA (ITALY), APRIL 24. Early season sensation Jenson Button beat Michael Schumacher for his first pole position on Saturday at the San Marino Grand Prix, breaking the Ferrari driver's run of three straight poles to open the year.

Schumacher, who also won the season's first three races, was faster than the BAR Honda driver for most of his run, but lost control slightly and swerved a bit in the final section, placing him in the second front-row spot.

Button, who finished a surprising third in the previous two races in Malaysia and Bahrain, covered the 4.933-kilometer (3.058-mile) Enzo and Dino Ferrari circuit in 1 minute, 19.753 seconds, establishing a new track record.

``It's a fantastic feeling to get pole here, especially on Ferrari's home turf, so I'm very pleased,'' Button said. ``It was a great lap and I don't think I made a mistake all the way round.''

Schumacher, who has 58 career poles, finished in 1:20.011 and Williams-BMW's Juan Pablo Montoya took the third spot on the starting grid in 1:20.212.

Schumacher said that he was pushing too hard after watching Button complete his record lap. ``I just overdid it a little at that point and I was actually lucky to stay on the circuit,'' he said, adding, however, that the time he lost ``would not have been enough to beat Jenson.''

``I think it's going to be an interesting race, a tight battle,'' Schumacher said. Schumacher's Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello was fourth in 1:20.451.

Button's previous best qualifying results also came in Malaysia and Bahrain, when the British driver started third on the grid. He struggled to remember the last time he started from pole, saying it was probably in 1999 when he was racing Formula 3.

``I went go-karting last year but I don't think that counts,'' Button said.

Button had been applying pressure to Schumacher in each of the four practice sessions here leading up to qualifying, winning one on Friday and finishing second behind the Ferrari star twice earlier on Saturday.

Montoya was the last driver to hit the course after setting a record time in pre-qualifying of 1:19.805. After Button clocked a new fastest time an hour later, a roar of applause erupted inside the British-dominated press room. Minutes later along the track, Ferrari fans fell silent when Schumacher faltered.

Button, who has the British flag emblazoned on his helmet, had never finished higher than fourth in 66 Formula One races entering this season. Now, the young driver has established himself as someone who could cause Schumacher problems in the German driver's bid for a seventh straight World title. He is right behind Ferrari's two drivers in the standings.

The pole position also places Button in prime position to derail Schumacher's attempt for a sixth win in Imola — and perhaps gain his first Grand Prix victory.

``Can't wait,'' Button said of Sunday's race. ``You know qualifying is one thing but winning the race is the main goal.''

Williams-BMW's Ralf Schumacher — Michael's brother — qualified fifth, followed by Renault's Fernando Alonso and Button's Japanese teammate Takuma Sato in seventh. Sato was en route to a higher position until he veered slightly off course near where Schumacher made his mistake.

McLaren Mercedes' Kimi Raikkonen pulled into pit lane before his run was finished, placing him at the back of the grid for Sunday's race. His team announced that it had decided to change the Finnish driver's engine for the second straight week. In Bahrain, the strategy backfired when the new engine caught fire on the eighth lap.

Raikkonen, who finished second to Schumacher in the standings last season, has not finished a race yet this year.

Sauber could not repair a gear problem on Giancarlo Fisichella's car after pre-qualifying and the Italian did not start the official session, leaving him in 19th place for the start of Sunday's race.

Zsolt Baumgartner, Minardi's Hungarian driver, drove off the course midway through his run, recovered, and finished more than 26 seconds behind Button.

The pole sitter would have been a highly unlikely choice for such a position until just a few weeks ago.

At 24, Button was already qualified for journeyman status after racing for three different teams in his first four years in Formula One.

Billed as the new English hope and heir to Nigel Mansell after a debut with Williams-BMW in 2000, Button never quite lived up to expectations. He moved to Benetton and Renault before settling in 2003 with BAR.

``I think it's more of an achievement for the team really over the last few years,'' he said of his progress. ``We're still a young team.'' — AP

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