By Alan Baldwin
MONZA, Italy (Reuters) - Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel seized pole position for the Italian Grand Prix and left his title rivals trailing with Red Bull locking out the front row in qualifying on Saturday.
Australian Mark Webber will line up alongside on the front row for his last race in Europe while Germany's Nico Hulkenberg sprung a huge surprise by grabbing third place on the grid for Ferrari-powered Sauber.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, Vettel's closest title rival with a 46 point gap to make up, qualified fifth and behind Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa with Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo watching.
Lewis Hamilton, last year's winner for McLaren who had entered the weekend chasing a fifth successive pole, failed to make the top 10 and starts 12th for Mercedes.
The pole was the 40th of Vettel's F1 career and came at a track that Red Bull principal Christian Horner said only last month was something of an Achilles heel for the team along with Belgium.
However, Vettel won in Belgium and the 26-year-old German took his first Formula One victory at Monza in 2008 for Toro Rosso while also winning for Red Bull in 2011.
"This weekend, the car was fantastic. We had a really strong pace yesterday and we were able to take that into qualifying today," he told reporters on a sunny afternoon at the 'Pista Magica'.
"In the end, it's a bit of a surprise to have both cars on front row at a place where historically we've had bad years. This year it seems to work well and hopefully we'll have a good race tomorrow."
LIKE AN IDIOT
Hamilton was left shaking his head, even if he seemed to be held up by Force India's Adrian Sutil.
"I just drove like an idiot. That's the worst I've driven for a long, long time. I'm sorry to the team," he told reporters.
"I just didn't drive well. There's not really much more to say. I was quick in Q1 (the first phase) and then I don't know. I'll do whatever I can from where I am but it's going to be tough," added the 2008 champion.
Hulkenberg, who has been seen as a possible replacement for Massa at Ferrari at the end of the season, did his chances no harm with a sensational performance for his struggling Swiss team.
The German seemed as surprised as anyone, although Monza is a super-fast track and unlike the others where the Sauber has struggled for downforce this season.
"I didn't expect it, especially after a very difficult Friday. The guys have done a fantastic job to turn the car around," said Hulkenberg, who has become more used to qualifying just outside the top 10.
Massa, who has not won a race since 2008, made clear he would be no hindrance to Alonso on Sunday after doing everything he could to give him a tow in his slipstream down the long Monza straight.
"He's fighting for the championship, I'm not fighting, I'll do whatever is important for the team," said the Brazilian.
Radio traffic towards the end of the session appeared to indicate Alonso had sounded off at the team, although it was unclear at what point in the proceedings the comments were made, but the Spaniard made a point of stressing the positives afterwards.
"It is the first time in many races that I will be able to see a Red Bull rear wing first hand on the grid and on the first lap and first corner I can attack," he said.
"It was an extremely, extremely good qualifying for us and a great team effort," he declared.
The session ended with a cloud of dust when the Toro Rosso of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne went wide into the gravel at Parabolica.
Webber was right behind Vergne but felt the lost time had not cost him pole.
"In the dust I couldn't see if he had just put a wheel off and was continuing on the circuit or where he'd gone," said the Australian. "Then when I got around I saw he was in the gravel. So it cost me, but it wasn't enough for me to get Seb."
Nico Rosberg qualified sixth for Mercedes with Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo, who replaces compatriot Webber next season at Red Bull, seventh.
McLaren's Sergio Perez and Jenson Button will line up eighth and ninth with the team celebrating their 50th anniversary this weekend.
Lotus's Kimi Raikkonen, whose title hopes are fast receding, qualified 11th.
(Editing by John Mehaffey)