Lewis Hamilton yesterday found himself not just in danger of being swamped by the torrential rain that so affected practice and qualifying for today's Italian Grand Prix here, but also of being washed away by a sea of Red Bull.
As the hard-done-by hero of Spa-Francorchamps only qualified a shock 15th, after a poor tyre choice by his McLaren team, the German Sebastian Vettel became the youngest driver to take a grand prix pole position by dominating the final two qualifying sessions for the underdog Toro Rosso team. With his team-mate, Sébastien Bourdais, fourth and Red Bull's Mark Webber third, it was as great a day for the energy drink company as it was a disaster for the man who still holds a narrow lead in the World Championship.
If there was any consolation for Hamilton – who said he had come to Monza buoyed, not cowed, after his superb victory at Spa was taken away from him by a stewards' decision that has been ridiculed by those who are passionate about motor racing – it was that his arch rival Felipe Massa struggled to sixth place, Robert Kubica spun and thus could not better 11th, and his Spa sparring partner Kimi Raikkonen was only 14th.
Hamilton's downfall began in the second qualifying session after he had set the second-fastest time, behind his team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, in Q1. Even though the conditions were poor – it had begun to rain heavily 15 minutes before the 2pm start – he and McLaren elected to go out on Bridgestone's wet-weather tyres as opposed to extreme wets, which found favour with everyone else. By the time Hamilton came in and switched to those, it was too late to make the improvement he needed to get through to Q3.
"It was a joint decision to go out on wet-weather tyres at the start of Q2," said Hamilton, who thus failed to make Q3 for the first time in his career. "Partly mine and partly my engineers'. We thought it was the right way to go at the time because it was getting drier, but the grip level was poor, so I came in and switched to extremes.
"By the time I got out, it had begun to rain heavily and I just missed the window when the track was at its fastest. It was also very hard to pick out the braking points. It's the first time this has happened to me in Formula One, so I can't really complain – tomorrow's another day and we still have a fighting chance to make our way up the grid. I'll be doing the best job I can."
The McLaren team boss, Ron Dennis, said: "The weather may be unsettled tomorrow, too, and if so Lewis should still be in a position to score a good result."
While the giants of the game smarted, the team who used to be Minardi, the world's favourite underdogs, celebrated with a refreshing display of unbridled passion.
With his ready smile and quick wit, Vettel is fast becoming one of the characters of F1, and at 21 years and 73 days he eclipsed Fernando Alonso in the youngest pole-winner stakes.
"What should I say?" he said cheerfully. "It will take some time to sink in. I dreamt of one day driving an F1 car, and wanting to fight for poles and race wins, but I really did not expect to do it today.
"It's unbelievable, incredible. I was joking with my engineer that if it's wet, we have to go for pole. The conditions were so difficult, there was such a lot of water, but you never knew how much to expect. There was just so much at the Ascari corner [where Bourdais spun], and it was so easy to aquaplane there.
"This is our home grand prix [Toro Rosso are based inFaenza] and Italy has two teams. The bigger one is Scuderia Ferrari, but now people know about the smaller one, Scuderia Toro Rosso."
Monza's two chicanes historically lead drivers to overshoot while overtaking, and after the nonsense with Hamilton last weekend the FIA have moved to "clarify" what a driver is expected to do if he gains a place by cutting a corner. Hamilton gained an advantage doing that with Raikkonen in the final chicane at Spa, but immediatelysurrendered the place prior to the next corner. There, when Raikkonen darted left, Hamilton outbraked him, and wenton to win. The stewards, however, overturned the race director Charlie Whiting's view, expressed via radio to McLaren, that Hamilton did not have to do any more. Drivers were told here yesterday that in futurethey should wait at least one corner before resuming a fight for position.
If conditions are still poor prior to the start this afternoon, the FIA may begin the event behind the safety car. For-tunately, the suggestion that speed bumps will be introduced next can be discounted.
1. Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1min 37.555sec
2. Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:37.631
3. Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:38.117
4. Sébastien Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:38.445
5. Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 1:38.767
6. Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:38.894
7. Jarno Trulli (It) Toyota 1:39.152
8. Fernando Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:39.751
9. Timo Glock (Ger) Toyota 1:39.787
10. Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber 1:39.906
11. Robert Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber 1:36.697
12. Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari 1:36.698
13. David Coulthard (GB) Red Bull-Renault 1:37.284
14. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:37.522
15. Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:39.265
16. Rubens Barrichello (Br) Honda 1:36.510
17. Nelson Piquet (Br) Renault 1:36.630
18. Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota 1:36.653
19. Jenson Button (GB) Honda 1:37.006
20. Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari 1:37.417