Who’s on pole?  Gimme an S!  Gimme an E!  Gimme a BASTIAN VETTEL!

The big question, one which we haven’t had to ask at any stage prior to today, is whether he should have been.  For once, being called Sebastian and driving a Red Bull doesn’t appear to be the quickest way to get around a Grand Prix circuit, but a combination of bad luck and bad decisions has left Vettel’s main challenger with an impossible amount of work to do.

The man most likely throughout the early stages of qualifying was Lewis Hamilton, wringing his McLaren’s neck on a circuit he loves.  Throughout Q1 and Q2 the McLarens were at the top of the timesheets, with Jenson Button looking a solid three tenths slower than his team mate but well up in the overall classification.  When Vettel came to show his hand in the final moments of Q2, his best lap on Pirelli’s supersoft tyres was good but not quite good enough.  0.002 seconds separated Hamilton and Vettel, setting the stage for a battle royal in Q3.

What followed was something of an anti-climax, particularly if you’re a fan of Stevenage’s finest.  While every other major player set his wagons rolling in the opening seconds of the session, McLaren elected to keep Hamilton in the garage and go for a single quick run in the final minutes.  While he was there, a hexagonal nail-biter played itself out on track, with Vettel, Button, Webber, Alonso, Schumacher and Massa recording lap times.  The quick six couldn’t possibly have known it, but they’d already bought themselves the best seats in the house for the opening lap of the race.

When Lewis took to the track, he was hampered first by catching Massa at an unfortunate moment, then by Sergio Perez going straight across the chicane after the tunnel rather than around it.  It was a big shunt from which the Mexican seems to have emerged intact, as detailed below, and the session had to be stopped while the stricken Sauber was attended to.  Upon qualifying’s resumption, the track surface appeared to have given up grip, to the dismay of all in attendance but particularly Hamilton.  His best effort was good for no more than 7th, which became 9th when he was adjudged to have jumped the chicane during his flying lap.

It’s not known exactly how hard he laughed at this, but Lewis is well aware that he was not the architect of his own downfall.  At Monaco, you simply cannot afford to sit and watch while your major rivals are on track posting quick times.  Saving tyres for the race is a laudable aim but it’s madness on the streets of Monte Carlo, where one false move from another driver could completely destroy your only meaningful qualifying lap.  So it was for McLaren, now counting the cost of leaving their quickest car parked in the garage.  What makes the decision still more curious is that they’re racing on a track where tyre wear is not a significant factor.

If Lewis Hamilton can’t recover from 9th to win at Monaco, then nobody can.  He can’t, though, so who’s left to challenge Vettel?  Jenson Button starts from the outside of the front row but hasn’t had the legs of Hamilton all weekend.  Despite being the slower of the McLaren duo, he shouldn’t be discounted, being blessed with a sharp tactical mind and remarkable sympathy towards whatever Pirelli provide him with on a given weekend.  We’ve seen Jenson pop up ahead of Lewis on Sunday afternoons already this season, often by choosing to veer off the beaten strategic track, so it’ll be very interesting to see if he has anything for Sebastian over a race distance.

The slower of the Red Bull pairing starts from P3, but unlike the in-house war at Woking, the one at Milton Keynes is fairly clear-cut.  Not only is Mark Webber struggling to extract maximum performance from the RB7, he’s struggling to keep his tyres alive while he’s at it.  Last year he blitzed the field and might have won by a minute or more had the race ran without safety car intervention, but we’ve seen nothing this weekend to suggest that a repeat performance might be on the cards.

What of the Mercedes duo?  Michael Schumacher was a joy to watch throughout qualifying, dispelling any lingering doubts about his commitment in a series of tail-out slides through the swimming pool section. He lines up 5th, equalling his best qualifying position since his comeback.  With Schumi, a dynamic opening lap now comes as standard, but the track is too narrow to make much headway in the early stages.  On a wider circuit and on his usual form, he’d stand a chance of not only leading this race, but of leading the next race in Canada at the same time.  As it is, Michael has a couple of potentially quicker cars behind him and might not be too upset to finish in the middle of the top 10 tomorrow.  One of those potentially faster cars belongs to Nico Rosberg, who has had a slight edge all weekend but didn’t deliver the goods in Q3.

The Ferrari pairing continued their year-long battle with their worst enemy, the 150th Italia’s own front end.  Alonso and Massa are right up on the wheel of their cars this weekend and on Thursday, it looked like Fernando might be the man to beat.  On Saturday, he found his car loaded with the standard amount of understeer and couldn’t better P4, from which he might still be able to do some damage.  We’ve already mentioned that it’s going to be much harder for Schumacher to pull off another first turn shuffle, so it’s also unlikely that Alonso will be able to barge his way to the front using nothing but his own sheer brilliance as he did last week.  What if he did, though?

What we’ve seen so far this season is that Pirelli’s tyres hang together for a fairly low number of laps and then give up all of their performance in one go.  Unlike the refuelling era, when the aim was always to stay out a lap longer than the competition and take advantage of having a lighter car, the key this season is timing your pit stop so that you change tyres just as the performance disappears, thus extracting the absolute maximum from the rubber.  Leaving the pits on new tyres just as your rivals begin to experience problems, you can then get the hammer down and ensure that as the other guy leaves the pits after his stop, he’s staring at the back of your car vanishing into the distance.

We’ve also seen that the race leaders can leave the pits on new tyres and overtake midfield runners on old sets without too much difficulty.  This has removed the need to avoid being held up in traffic when calculating the best time to make a pit stop.  The leaders know they’ve got a speed advantage and they know that a driver on old tyres has little power to defend his position, so it’s not important to exit your pit stop on a completely clear track.  At Monaco, though, if the chap in front doesn’t want you to come past, you don’t come past, irrespective of how quickly he’s going.  For proof, see Nigel Mansell catching Ayrton Senna at an indecent rate after a forced tyre change late in the 1992 race.

If someone like Alonso is able to muscle through to the front, Vettel and company won’t find it quite so easy to overtake through better pit stop timing as they did in Spain last Sunday.  If they try to jump him by pitting early and emerge from the pits behind, say, a Williams or a Force India, they could quite conceivably be stuck in traffic for long enough to give Fernando or Michael or whoever a shot into the clear.  For that reason and that reason alone, it’s not safe to completely rule out a shock result, but realistically?  We’re clutching at straws.  Kinky Kylie has the box seat yet again.

The Grid

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1:13.556
2. Jenson Button (McLaren), +0.441 seconds
3. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +0.463 seconds
4. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +0.927 seconds
5. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +1.126 seconds
6. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +1.321 seconds
7. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +1.724 seconds
8. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +2.972 seconds
9. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), time disallowed for jumping a chicane
10. Sergio Perez (Sauber), no time set due to accident *

Eliminated in Q2

11. Vitaly Petrov (Renault)
12. Rubens Barrichello (Williams)
13. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber)
14. Paul di Resta (Force India)
15. Adrian Sutil (Force India)
16. Nick Heidfeld (Renault)
17. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso)

Eliminated in Q1

18. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus)
19. Jarno Trulli (Lotus)
20. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso)
21. Timo Glock (Virgin)
22. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin)
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), outside 107%, no time after crash in morning practice **
24. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), outside 107%, no time after suspension problem found in pits **

*Due to the concussion sustained in his Q3 accident, Sergio Perez will remain in hospital for observation tonight and will not start the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix

**Despite failing to post a qualifying time, both HRT drivers set times during practice which would have put them within 107% of the fastest Q1 lap.  Accordingly, both drivers will be allowed to start tomorrow

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