Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello appear destined for the front row of the grid at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix after the Ferrari drivers dominated the first qualifying session on Thursday.

Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello could be shoo-ins for the front row of the grid of this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix after the Ferrari drivers dominated the first qualifying session on Thursday.

Qualifying positions are more important at Monaco than at any other circuit because the street course offers drivers very few overtaking opportunities. But the opportunity to be the last two drivers to run in Saturday’s qualifying session could turn out to be a disadvantage… On Thursday, track conditions changed rapidly during the session and lap times dropped off dramatically in the closing stages.

Schumacher and Barrichello held the one-two all through yesterday’s session and the German's best lap of 1:16,305 was three-tenths of a second faster than his Brazilian team-mate’s time. BAR's Jenson Button was third fastest.

McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen took to the track to start the first group of five and set lap of a 1:17,926, a second down on Mark Webber's fastest tour in the practice session. Schumacher was up on the Finn in all three sectors and took provisional pole over a second better. Barrichello was third on track, quicker again in sectors one and two but losing out in the third to slot in behind Schumacher.

Renault’s Fernando Alonso was comparatively slow after his pace in practice and was two seconds down on Schumacher to go fourth in the Renault. David Coulthard completed the group, the McLaren-Mercedes slow initially but speeding up to go third fastest, seven-tenths off pole.

Ralf Schumacher started the second group for Williams-BMW, his time matching Coulthard's almost exactly save for dropping a tenth in sector two. He slotted into fourth and was followed by team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya. The Colombian was quicker than Ralf in the first and third sectors but he too dropped a tenth in the middle, putting him fifth.

Jordan Ford driver Giancarlo Fisichella, who showed a lot of pace in the morning practice, was next and had a good lap that put the Jordan fifth, splitting the Williams-BMW pair. Jarno Trulli in the second Renault followed his compatriot and shot up behind the Ferraris, third fastest and half a second behind Barrichello. Button was last of the group and snatched third from Trulli by a mere hundredth of a second.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was the first driver of the third group, but the Ferrari-powered Sauber coasted to a halt just after he crossed the line to start his flying lap. It appeared to be mechanical failure and the session was red-flagged so the car could be removed. Mark Webber aborted his out lap and returned to the pits to wait for a clear track.

After a ten minute delay, Webber finally completed his flying lap but never really regained his momentum, ending ninth in the Jaguar. BAR's Jacques Villeneuve was off the pace on his lap - it seemed the track had slowed since Frentzen's mishap - and set the eleventh fastest time.

Cristiano da Matta was the first Toyota out and was a second down over every sector, finishing 13th and over four seconds off pole. Nick Heidfeld was last and improved on the rest of his group to go tenth in the second Sauber.

The final group began with Jordan's Ralph Firman. He was reasonable at first but had a poor middle sector, then picked up in the third to end 13th. Jaguar's Antonio Pizzonia ran a cautious lap to take fifteenth and the second Toyota of Olivier Panis was almost three seconds off the pace in the middle sector. The Frenchman was 16th fastest ahead of team-mate da Matta.

The Minardis wound up the session, starting with Jos Verstappen. The Dutchman was on a par with Panis then upped the pace in the final sector to take 16th ahead of both Toyotas. Justin Wilson matched Verstappen and slotted into seventeenth just two tenths behind him - adding insult to injury as far as Toyota was concerned.

Ferrari stamped its authority on the session, which was no real surprise, but what happened behind the two scarlet cars was much more interesting. Button carried his charge from practice through to qualifying and Trulli and Coulthard were not too shabby either.

Ralf was a big improvement from the morning session and Fisichella surprised many with his seventh place. Bur Alonso was down in 14th after an inexplicably mediocre lap from the talented young Spaniard. Championship leader Raikkonen was disappointed after failing to make the top ten.

However, the first qualifying session might have little bearing on what happens on Saturday... Some teams are expected to manipulate their fuel loads in qualifying trim to secure the strongest possible grid spots - although the front-running teams will probably settle for more conservative race set-ups.

Final top eight classification: M. Schumacher, Barrichello, Button, Trulli, Coulthard, R. Schumacher, Fisichella, Montoya.