A gearbox issue left Nico Hulkenberg high and dry in the opening minutes of first qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix, leaving the German to contemplate a back-of-the-grid start at a Monza circuit expected to suit the Mercedes-powered Sahara Force India team.

Hulkenberg was approaching the opening chicane to start his first flying lap when he suddenly found himself without gears, and was forced to park the #12 machine without a time on the board. With the pressure off the other midfield runners, the battle to avoid non-qualification was dulled, although Lotus stand-in Jerome d'Ambrosio unsurprisingly found himself in amongst the Caterhams and having to fight for survival.

Heikki Kovalainen made repeated attempts to retake 17th spot - and safety - from the Belgian, who was the first to switch to the medium compound Pirellis, but could not quite find enough to move back up. The remainder of the backmarkers scrapped over minor grid positions, eventually emerging in the order Vitaly Petrov, Timo Glock, Charles Pic, Narain Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa, the Indian genuinely out-qualifying a team-mate for the first time since his season with Jordan.

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Ferrari hero Fernando Alonso topped the times, turning the tables on McLaren's Lewis Hamilton after the Briton had pipped him by 0.001secs in FP3, while Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg and Paul di Resta rounded out the top five. Sebastian Vettel was the best of the Red Bulls in seventh, with Mark Webber back in 14th spot.