• Champion uses experience to book McLaren front row spot
• Fernando Alonso gives Ferrari a rare pole position
Jenson Button will be on the front row of the grid for the first time in 24 races for the Italian Grand Prix after a tactical victory over his team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
Today’s qualifying session also marked a long-awaited return to form for Ferrari, who took pole position for the first time in almost two years, although Fernando Alonso’s triumph was played out before a strangely subdued tifosi.
Ferrari will start first and third today – separated by Button – but in the largely deserted stands the news was greeted with phlegm and one huge red flag of the prancing horse was dragged into position belatedly, like a limp afterthought. Perhaps they were more interested in the sight of Hugh Grant in the Ferrari garage.
Mark Webber will be in fourth place on the grid, two places ahead of his team-mate Sebastian Vettel, with Hamilton separating the Red Bulls like a reluctant referee.
The afternoon represented a victory for the world champion over the championship leader. Just as in the first four races of the season, Button’s superior experience appeared to be a weightier factor than Hamilton’s marginally greater raw pace.
The two McLaren drivers drove significantly different cars. While Button opted for a steeper rear wing with the F-duct, to give him greater downforce and cornering ability, Hamilton went for straight-line speed.
“For me it was the better option,” said Button. “It meant that I could brake late and carry more weight into the corners, instead of tip-toeing through them with lower downforce. But it did mean I had to be aggressive.
“But Lewis, who chose a different option, has also been quick all weekend, so I’m surprised he’s that far behind. I didn’t expect the Ferraris to be as quick as this.”
Button added: “I need to have a good race here and challenge for the victory to claw some points back. It’s not a must-win but that’s the aim – a podium is very important here but the win is obviously the target.”
Hamilton conceded his decision to dispense with the F-duct had been the wrong one. “I think it had quite a big impact on the end result,” he said. “I’m quite disappointed with fifth place.
“We chose to go with the lighter downforce level, which doesn’t have the F-duct, and the car was sliding everywhere so I struggled quite a lot on each tyre and I just didn’t have the downforce.”
Hamilton also admitted he had had a poor run in Q3. “I think I was probably too close to the car in front. I got a little bit in the tow of Mark Webber – I don’t need it in the straight speed because I’m already quite fast there.
“I just needed to have downforce in the corners, but you learn from these mistakes and we’ll keep pushing tomorrow.”
Alonso’s performance could revive his flagging championship ambitions. He crashed out of the Belgian Grand Prix a fortnight ago and is now 41 points behind Hamilton. “We need a podium minimum to remain in the fight,” said the Spaniard.
“The first run was just to put a normal lap on the table and then try to risk more in the second run. But, as sometimes happens in Monza, when you do a normal lap it is better than when you try to push because it is easy to make a mistake.”
The pressure remains on him, however, for like Button and Vettel he may be just one more bad happening away from extinction in this year’s title race.
Hamilton’s biggest threat is still Webber, who, after a fraught weekend with a water leak and then an airbox problem, will be happy enough to start the race on the second row.
Disappointment for Michael Schumacher is becoming almost too commonplace to record. But here he missed out on Q3 for the fourth time in as many races, while his team-mate Nico Rosberg will be seventh on the grid.
“I am obviously not very happy with our qualifying but my position is probably what my car was giving me,” Schumacher said.
Perhaps the unusually nostalgic Hamilton had let his mind stray to an earlier rich vintage for McLaren, when his hero Ayrton Senna ruled the world.
Before qualifying, he said: “When I was growing up I drove Senna’s car and for me – I always watched TV – I thought that was the coolest age, and time, when the cars were really amazing, with not too much downforce. They weren’t ridiculously quick, in terms of power.
“When I drove the car it was nowhere near as quick as the one we have now. But it was just raw awesomeness. I’m happy where I am. I love the way the car is. If we could have it a little less political, like it was back then, maybe it would be more exciting for the fans, who knows, it might be more exciting for everyone.”
If Ferrari win their home grand prix, the Italians may even remember what it is to be excited.