Michael Schumacher rolled back the years in electrifying fashion to qualify fastest for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix on Saturday, only to be deprived of a sensational pole position by a five place grid penalty.
Red Bull’s Australian Mark Webber, who was second, inherited the top slot - which will make it the second time in two races that the quickest driver on Saturday has not started first on Sunday.
Schumacher, 43 and in the third season of his comeback with Mercedes, had picked up his penalty at the previous Spanish Grand Prix for a collision with Brazilian Bruno Senna’s Williams in Barcelona.
Without it, the German would have been on pole for the first time since the 2006 French Grand Prix and 69th time in his extraordinary career.
Saturday’s qualifying was still a triumph for the seven-times world champion and winner of 91 races including five in Monaco, who has yet to stand on the podium since he retired from Ferrari in 2006.
“What a little star,” declared his admiring team principal Ross Brawn, the former Benetton and Ferrari technical head who has been by the German’s side throughout his career.
“I have to confess it brought a little tear to my eye. He’s had some tough times since he came back,” added Brawn, whose driver has drawn hostile fire since he returned with some suggesting he was past it.
Schumacher’s team mate and fellow-German Nico Rosberg will line up alongside Webber on the front row with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Frenchman Romain Grosjean, driving a Lotus, behind the front pair.
“I saw my time on the dashboard and thought it shouldn’t be too bad,” grinned Schumacher, who has had some of his greatest and worst moments on the Mediterranean principality’s tight street circuit. “It’s beautiful.”
Ironically, the last time Schumacher took pole in Monaco he was also stripped of it - with Ferrari in 2006 in scandalous circumstances.
That time he was sent to the back by stewards who, after lengthy deliberation, ruled that he had deliberately stopped his car at the Rascasse corner to stop the session and deny Renault’s Fernando Alonso the pole.
That was all ancient history on Saturday, with genuine applause for the German instead of the boos and catcalls of six years ago.
“I am more than thrilled and excited about making pole here in Monaco,” said Schumacher. “Monaco to all of us is the track of the year with a very prestigious position and to manage pole here after what I have gone through in the last two and a half years is just fabulous.
“I told you guys already that my situation is going to be that I will be on pole, start the race in sixth and go on to win it. And that’s what I’m going to aim for. That’s all I have in my mind and the past doesn’t matter at all.”
Webber, a Monaco winner in 2010 but also yet to appear on the podium this season, recognised that it was Schumacher’s day in the sunshine but was also delighted with his lap.
“It’s nice to move up a position, of all places it’s good to start towards the front here,” he said of a track where passing is rarely easy or straightforward even with the boost of KERS and moveable rear wing.
His team mate, double world champion Sebastian Vettel who won last year, qualified 10th.
Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, winner in Spain after inheriting pole from a penalised Hamilton, saw his hopes of a second win in a row virtually disappear after he was handed a 10 place penalty for causing a collision with Sauber’s Mexican Sergio Perez in final practice.
Maldonado will start 19th.
Perez, who crashed heavily last year and missed the race, will start right at the back after he smacked into the barriers at the Swimming Pool in the first part of qualifying with a wheel bouncing off.
The session was red-flagged and then re-started once the Sauber had been safely removed. The Mexican appeared to have a problem with the steering that may have been related to the earlier impact with the Venezuelan.
McLaren’s Jenson Button, the 2009 champion and Monaco winner with Brawn GP, also faces a tough race on Sunday after qualifying a disappointing 13th.