Formula 1 World Championship leader Jenson Button made it four pole positions out of six in 2009 in qualifying for this weekend's Monaco Grand Prix, pipping Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen to the top spot by the narrowest of margins – and now he is bidding to turn it into his fifth victory of the season too around a circuit where Lady Luck has never really shone upon the Brawn GP star before.
A KERS-equipped Raikkonen doubtless believed he had got the job done after keeping his powder dry until the final stages of a tense Q3 to masterfully snatch what appeared to be his first pole since Magny-Cours last year, but then Button – who had looked distinctly off-colour in both Q1 and Q2 – pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the very dying moments to demote the 2007 title-winner by a scant 0.025 seconds.
Behind the front row pairing, the sister Brawn entry of birthday boy Rubens Barrichello – 37 today – took third, despite having again seemed to have the legs of Button for much of the weekend so far, with Red Bull Racing ace Sebastian Vettel a slightly low-key fourth, Felipe Massa fifth in the second Ferrari and Nico Rosberg in the leading Williams sixth. Heikki Kovalainen, Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso and Kazuki Nakajima will complete the top ten.
Rosberg and Vettel may have made much of the early running, but when action stopped it was Button once more on top of the pile. In the last 23 years, on just one occasion has the Monaco Grand Prix been won from outside the top three on the grid – when Olivier Panis sensationally triumphed for Ligier back in 1996 – and Sir Jackie Stewart has repeatedly stated that concentration, consistency and confidence are key around the narrow, tortuous streets of the glamorous Principality. Button has only once finished inside the points in Monte Carlo in seven previous starts – that could be set to change on Sunday with interest.
Rosberg similarly flew in the low-fuel Q2, setting the initial time to beat before ultimately winding up fifth, as Kovalainen's raw pace showed what might have been for McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, by far the highest-profile victim of Q1 after expensively clouting the Mirabeau barriers. The Finn would ultimately be pipped by three tenths of a second in the final reckoning by a stunning effort from compatriot Raikkonen, with Webber a consistent third, Barrichello fourth, Rosberg fifth, Vettel sixth, Massa seventh, Button a comparatively lowly eighth – indeed at one point looking in danger of not actually making it through at all, following a mediocre first run and no great turn of speed from thereon in – Alonso ninth and Nakajima tenth, seeing Williams get both of its cars through to Q3 for the first time in 2009.
Out of the reckoning, by contrast, were Sébastien Buemi and Nelsinho Piquet, with the latter lightly kissing the wall on the exit of the Swimming Pool section before spinning backwards in Anthony Noghès Corner towards the end of his flying lap, only narrowly avoiding reversing into the barriers. Giancarlo Fisichella – who recovered well from losing his first two Q2 times for having cut the chicane on both occasions – the second Scuderia Toro Rosso of Sébastien Bourdais and the second Force India of Adrian Sutil similarly, if perhaps unsurprisingly, missed the cut for the top ten shoot-out.
With a number of big names fearing the Q1 chop around a circuit famous for throwing up surprises, both Toyotas took to the track immediately at the very beginning of qualifying, with Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock having struggled weekend-long with graining issues and getting heat into their rear tyres. There was greater drama by far, however, for 2008 pole-sitter Massa, who nosed his Ferrari into the unforgiving Armco barriers on the way into the Swimming Pool on his opening 'out' lap, necessitating a return to his pit box for his F2009 to receive some TLC.
The greatest casualty of Q1, though – and undoubtedly the most surprising – was defending race-winner Hamilton, who with eight minutes of the session remaining and having just set the fastest first sector of anyone locked up on the way into Mirabeau, causing the back end of his McLaren to step out and hit the barrier going through the corner, breaking his rear suspension in the process and instantly bringing out the red flags. The 24-year-old's first mistake of the weekend, it was the worst possible time for it to have been committed.
With STR rookie Buemi and the two Force Indias showing impressive form – indeed at one stage running one-two, with more than ten cars having set a representative time – a further upset hung in the air, and an upset certainly materialised.