The rain held off from Monaco for qualifying and Ferrari made the most of the respite to fill the front row, with Felipe Massa taking an unexpected pole despite his well-known dislike of the Monte Carlo circuit.
McLaren had looked a class ahead in final practice but when it counted neither Lewis Hamilton nor Heikki Kovalainen could find an answer to the red cars’ pace – and particularly the Brazilian, who had the measure of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen throughout.
Both Robert Kubica for BMW and Nico Rosberg for Williams showed flashes of the speed needed to challenge the top four but fell short in the end and will start fifth and sixth.
Hamilton said his team had been surprised at Ferrari’s pace – but he still believed the race was winnable: “We thought we would be a little bit quicker, but were surprised by the Ferrari pace,” he said.
“I was happy with how the session went, my lap was quite good, there were no problems with traffic, and the car felt generally good. I felt I had two solid laps.
“I think we lost out a lot in traction in sector two, probably going up the straight and through the tunnel. And in the last sector the time is in stopping in the corners and not being able to brake as late.
“In practice, doing a lap was quite easy and I was able to push more if I wanted to. We were confident I had the pace but in Q3 it was more about being on the limit. We’ll push very hard in the race and we will be able to compete.”
David Coulthard had already set a time that would put him into the pole shoot-out when he nicked the side of the tunnel and slid into a 180mph crash, wheels bouncing down the track as the rest of his car slammed into the run-off area.
His accident looked unpleasantly similar to Jenson Button’s five years ago, when the Englishman hit the wall separating the track and the escape road.
Coulthard said: “It’s the worst place to have a crash but thankfully I went down the escape road.” He wasn’t sure whether the crash was caused by mechanical failure or driver error.
“We need to check the data, but when I hit the brakes the car turned. At the point on the track you go over a rise so it is quite possible that I locked the rear axle. But normally when that happens, you just release the brake a little bit.
“So will check the car and see if there was anything going wrong at the rear, because it turned very quickly and I hit the wall quite hard.
“It’s normal to have the rear go light there because we don’t have engine braking and things like that, but you drive with that in mind. I’m surprised that what happened was so violent.”
Jenson Button will start 12th, having comfortably outpaced team-mate Rubens Barrichello.