Hamilton pips swift Sutil for pole

World champion keeps the faith to master cathedral of speed

Monza: the cathedral of speed. That's how this wonderful place is so often described, and there's no argument with that. But this year it could equally be billed Monza; the cathedral of controversy.

Thank you, Nelson Piquet Snr and Jnr. Thank you, Flavio Briatore.

The action on the track at the Italian Grand Prix has been fast and gloriously furious so far, but off the track mainly it's just been furious.

Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds of Renault F1 stand accused of rigging the result of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix by conspiring with their rookie driver Nelson Piquet Jnr for him to crash his car deliberately and thus trigger a safety car just after the team leader Fernando Alonso's extra-ordinarily early refuelling stop on the 12th lap. When the Brazilian did indeed crash two laps later, Alonso was the principal beneficiary, and went on to win the race. At the time there was much speculation about how convenient that all was, but the FIA took no action since nobody had made any official complaint.

When Briatore finally ditched Piquet Jnr at the end of July, however, all hell broke loose as the spurned Brazilian hit back with a stinging criticism of Briatore's management style – something with which drivers such as Johnny Herbert, JJ Lehto and Jos Verstappen would doubtless sympathise – and then claimed that he had been persuaded to go along with the Singapore plan.

For a while there was dignified silence from Renault F1, as they were summoned by an angry FIA to answer the charges at an extraordinary meeting of the World Motor Sport Council in Paris on 21 September. Then came a statement this weekend in which Briatore said: "The ING Renault F1 Team and their managing director Flavio Briatore personally wish to state that they have commenced criminal proceedings against Nelson Piquet Jnr and Nelson Piquet Snr in France, concerning the making of false allegations and a related attempt to blackmail the team into allowing Mr Piquet Jnr to drive for the remainder of the 2009 season. The matter will also be referred to the UK police."

That sounded pretty juicy, until you remembered that only police and judicial authorities together can issue criminal proceedings. When Briatore resorted to casting aspersions upon Piquet Jnr's sexuality, Monza became reminiscent of Billingsgate Fish Market.

Thankfully, qualifying here was a humdinger. The great thing about this place is that in order to be fast you need to wind off all of the downforce, and that makes a 605kg, 800bhp F1 car as friendly as a rattlesnake with a hernia. Which means watching them is one hell of a lot of fun.

"It makes a huge difference and it's a serious shock to the system," admitted Lewis Hamilton. It didn't help that nobody had tested here this year, nor knew that the famed kerbs in the two silly chicanes had been built up with what Jenson Button described as "a mountain of concrete".

"You accelerate faster because there's less drag with low downforce," Hamilton added. "Mentally you're remem-bering the car from the previous race when you had loads of downforce and feel you can carry the speed into cor-ners, but you can't. You can't brake at 100 metres, but instead at 120, and the car is sliding everywhere."

For moments yesterday afternoon it seemed that Force India were about to celebrate their first pole position after Adrian Sutil lapped Monza in 1min 24.261sec, but right at the end Hamilton blasted his McLaren round in 1:24.066 to snatch the honour away from his friend. "It was a very close qualifying session and I'm very happy to see Adrian up here," the world champion said, genuinely pleased for his old Formula Three team-mate. "It's our first time on the front row together since Zandvoort in 2005. They [Force India] are incredibly fast but our team did a great job and our car feels good. It's such a great feeling, to put a single lap together. You've only got one shot at it, and it's the most exhilarating thing when you finally pull it off."

Sutil was stoked, too. "It's a great moment, a great day for me. The whole weekend has been a big success. The car is really quick, unbelievable."

With new boy Tonio Liuzzi an impressive seventh on a heavier fuel load, Vijay Mallya's team are in good shape, close to the Brawns, who were also running reasonable fuel loads as they qualified fifth (Rubens Barrichello) and sixth (Button), and crucially are ahead of their title rivals Red Bull, who lined up ninth and 10th.