Jenson Button took a step closer to the biggest prize on the Formula One calendar with pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix.
The Brawn driver delivered a perfect lap when it mattered to take his fourth pole of the season, seeing off pressure from Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel in a closely fought qualifying shoot-out in Monte Carlo.
Rubens Barrichello in the sister Brawn car took third place while Vettel was forced to settle for fourth.
Button said: “It s so important to qualify well in Monaco and I am really happy to have achieved pole position here today. It means a lot to me, they all do, but this one is so important for the race tomorrow.”
Lewis Hamilton was a shock causality of the opening qualifying session after falling victim to the street circuit’s unforgiving barriers. The McLaren driver outbraked himself into Mirabeau and pitched his car into the barriers, writing of his right rear suspension. He classified sixteenth on the grid but will start last after the team decided to change his gearbox.
Only three tenths of a second separated the top five going into the final shoot which paved the way for an epic battle for pole as the drivers tried to get track position for Sunday’s race.
Sebastian Vettel laid down a benchmark time of 1:15.395 but it was a rejuvenated Kimi Raikkonen who emerged as Brawn GP’s biggest threat after he went quickest and broke into the 1m 14s.
Button responded masterfully, edging out the Ferrari driver by a mere 0.025 seconds with a sensational flying lap in the closing seconds. Teammate Rubens Barrichello popped into third while Vettel was dropped to fourth place after appearing to be held up on his final attempt.
“It was definitely a lap to remember and I was really on the edge the whole way round,” recounts Button. “It was a real fight today and I thought that Rubens would have the upper hand in qualifying as he has been so strong all weekend.”
Felipe Massa confirmed Ferrari’s pace by lapping fifth quickest. The Brazilian came close to sitting out the session after dropping his Ferrari into the barriers at the swimming pool complex in Q1 ripping off his front wing. Fortunately he was able to return to the pits for repairs.
Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton was not so lucky. The McLaren driver out braked himself into Mirabeau and, despite his best efforts to correct the car, pitched his car into the barriers damaging the right rear tyre.
Unable to return to the pits for repairs, a dejected Hamilton was forced to look on at his stricken McLaren as the red flags were brought out with eight minutes of the session remaining. He will start the race from sixteenth on the grid.
“I made a mistake,” Hamilton explained. “I just braked too late it s unfortunate, but these things happen. It s not been a good day: I had been going well all weekend and had the possibility of being on the front row.”
“It s a shame for the team, because they have done such a fantastic job all weekend and the car has felt really strong. Starting 16th is frustrating, but I ll learn from this, drive my heart out tomorrow and see what happens.â€
With overtaking almost impossible around the twisty street circuit, Hamilton will be hard pressed to challenge for points, let alone a podium which was very much on the cards after a strong showing in practice.
Heikki Kovalainen in the sister McLaren topped the timesheets in Q1 suggesting that his seventh place in Q3 was achieved on a respectable fuel load.
Williams saw both their drivers progress to the shoot-out with local Monaco resident Nico Rosberg threatening to upset the formbook with the quickest time, before dropping to sixth place overall.
Mark Webber was again unable to match the pace of Red Bull teammate Vettel and will start the race from eighth place ahead of Fernando Alonso and Kazuki Nakajima.
Toyota drivers Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock, who only a couple of races ago locked out the front row of the grid in Bahrain, were the shock casualties of the opening session along with BMW Sauber. Jarno Trulli complained of being blocked on his final qualifying run, whereas Timo Glock got it all wrong exiting the Swimming Pool complex and spun.
“It is extremely disappointing but especially because I was on a pretty good lap at the end of Q1 when I was blocked by another car in the final two corners,” said Trulli. “That would have been my quickest lap and I would have been easily in Q2. So I am angry about that but ultimately we haven t shown good enough performance this weekend.â€
The result was as much to do with the performances of usual back markers Toro Rosso and Force India as it was the problems Toyota ran into. Both teams’ driver pairings progressed to Q2 for the first time this season with Sebastian Buemi pacing eleventh quickest ahead of Renault’s Nelson Piquet – who lost control of his R29 at the final corner – and Giancarlo Fisichella who leads Sebastian Bourdais in the second STR and teammate Adrian Sutil.
BMW Sauber once again battled with relegation in Q1, but neither Nick Heidfeld or Robert Kubica were able to lift themselves into the top fifteen as they did in Spain. The pair line up in seventeenth and eighteenth respectively ahead of the Toyota drivers.
1 Jenson Button Brawn 1:14.902 2 Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen Ferrari 0:00.025 3 Rubens Barrichello Brawn 0:00.175 4 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 0:00.369 5 Felipe Massa Ferrari 0:00.535 6 Nico Rosberg Williams 0:00.553 7 Heikki Kovalainen McLaren 0:00.614 8 Mark Webber Red Bull 0:00.751 9 Fernando Alonso Renault 0:01.107 10 Kazuki Nakajima Williams 0:02.442 11 Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 0:00.935 12 Nelson Piquet Renault 0:00.931 13 Giancarlo Fisichella Force India 0:01.161 14 Sebastien Bourdais Toro Rosso 0:01.218 15 Adrian Sutil Force India 0:01.643 16 Lewis Hamilton McLaren 0:01.362 17 Nick Heidfeld BMW 0:01.362 18 Robert Kubica BMW 0:01.503 19 Jarno Trulli Toyota 0:01.646 20 Timo Glock Toyota 0:01.886