Monza, that cathedral of speed, offers many wonderful things. Not just the ghosts that have inhabited the place since 1922 nor even the relics of a glorious past, such as the redundant banking, that were almost made more famous in the 1966 movie Grand Prix than in their heyday. Monza, historically, also offers challenges such as a choice of downforce level for the drivers.
That creates unpredictability, the lifeblood of any sport, and nothing highlighted this better than the fortunes of the two McLaren drivers in qualifying, as they opted for different configurations. On Friday morning they both ran the tried and trusted high-downforce package, though in Monza's lexicon "high downforce" is a relative term because even then there is much less than a driver needs at, say, Silverstone.
But McLaren had also brought a low-downforce package, which Lewis Hamilton preferred that afternoon and again yesterday morning. Such was the nature of this experimentation that his and Jenson Button's lap times were similar, but for different reasons.
Yet as Fernando Alonso snatched Ferrari's first pole in 30 races, it was Button who seemed to have got it right, as he lined up second with Hamilton only fifth. "I'd like to say a big thank you to the team, because we were not sure which approach to take regarding downforce," Button said. "I think our side of the garage definitely made the right decision to run the high-downforce level.
"In Q3 we just had to push a little bit more, but you can push too much and go that bit slower here; it's very, very tricky. I'm very happy with second, and this is my first front-row start this season. I'm very happy with the car's performance."
He was, he confessed, surprised at the difference between his time and Hamilton's, 1min 22.084sec compared with 1:22.623. Hamilton was surprised, too, and disappointed. "It would appear that we took the wrong route by running without the F-duct this weekend," he admitted. "I just didn't have the downforce today, and the car was sliding in the corners – I couldn't push any harder because the car just wouldn't give me any more."
Button explained: "When you've got more downforce you can brake later and carry more speed through corners. But you have to push very hard to make time up in the corners. You've got to be aggressive and push the car. We were not sure it would work, but it did."
"I'll have good top speed," Hamilton said, "but the car is going to be sliding through the corners so I won't be able to follow closely enough through them to try and pass."
The feeling of surprise was not confined to the two Britons. Alonso was still pinching himself afterwards. "When I stopped in parc fermé they told me by radio that I was keeping first position. This year it has happened that at the end someone will arrive at the last moment when we were fastest and then we would be second or third. But today was different. It's a fantastic taste, this pole in Italy for Ferrari."
Timely, too; the Spaniard, like Button and Sebastian Vettel, only sixth fastest for Red Bull, needs to score well here to rein in Hamilton and Mark Webber, who overcame practice troubles to qualify a superb fourth.
"My first run was a good lap," Alonso said, "so on the second attempt we try to risk a little bit more. But sometimes here when you do a normal lap the time is better than when you try to risk; it's easy to overdrive a little bit."
With Felipe Massa moving into contention with a strong third in the second Ferrari, the first corner will be critical as the five contenders try to gain advantage without "doing a Vettel" and compromising themselves.
"At the minimum we need a podium," Alonso said. "There is not big pressure about winning the race or the next races, but we know that we cannot afford another DNF or a bad result, so we have to try to be consistent. If we can win it would be great, but for the championship we need that consistency, something we haven't had so far."
Final qualifying: 1 Fernando Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1min 21.962sec. 2 Jenson Button (GB) McLaren 1:22.084. 3 Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari 1:22.293. 4 Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:22.433. 5 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:22.623. 6 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) RedBull-Renault 1:22.675. 7 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:23.027. 8 Nico Hülkenberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth 1:23.037. 9 Robert Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:23.039. 10 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Williams-Cosworth 1:23.328. 11 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes1:23.199. 12 Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:23.388. 13 Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber-Ferrari 1:23.659. 14 Sebastien Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:23.681. 15 Jaime Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:23.919. 16 Pedro de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber-Ferrari 1:24.044. 17 Jarno Trulli (It) Lotus-Cosworth 1:25.540. 18 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus-Cosworth 1:25.742. 19 Vitantonio Liuzzi (It) Force India-Mercedes 1:25.774. 20 Vitaly Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:23.819 (five place penalty for impeding).21 Lucas Di Grassi (Bra) Virgin-Cosworth 1:25.974. 22 Bruno Senna (Bra) HRT-Cosworth 1:26.847. 23 Sakon Yamamoto (Japan) HRT-Cosworth 1:27.020.24 Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth 1:25.934 (five place penalty for gearbox change)