Sebastian Vettel on Italian GP pole

MONZA, Italy -- Racing on a track that has been a challenge for Red Bull in the past, Sebastian Vettel earned the pole position Saturday for the Italian Grand Prix.

Extending Red Bull's perfect streak of poles in all 13 races this season, Vettel was timed in 1 minute, 22.275 seconds around the Monza circuit.

Lewis Hamilton qualified second in 1:22.725 -- nearly half a second behind -- and his McLaren teammate Jenson Button will start third in Sunday's race after timing 1:22.777.

"We thought it was much closer than that," Vettel said. "The car is very good here. We are quite quick around all three sections. I also think we have quite a good race approach, so I'm happy."

Defending champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was fourth, Red Bull's Mark Webber fifth and Ferrari's Felipe Massa sixth.

Vettel became the youngest winner in F1 history at Monza in 2008 at the age of 21 with Toro Rosso but his fourth-place finish last year was Red Bull's best result in six attempts at the track.

"Normally it's not our best circuit so it's nice to be back," Vettel said. "I like this track but it's been a while since I was sitting here."

Vettel has won seven of the 12 races this season and holds a commanding 92-point lead over second-place Webber in the drivers' standings. If he wins again this weekend, Vettel could seal his second consecutive title at the next race, in Singapore later this month -- depending on how Webber fares.

It was Vettel's 10th pole of the year, with Webber having claimed the other three, raising the question of whether Red Bull might go for a season sweep.

"I don't care so much about that. We have to go step by step," Vettel said. "So far we're doing excellent but it's not over yet."

Nigel Mansell set the record for most poles in one season with
14 in 1992.

"The most impressive on Saturday was Ayrton Senna," Vettel
said, referring to the late Brazilian great who held the record of
65 career poles before his fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino GP. "That's the real benchmark."

With home team Ferrari having struggled all season, the seats in the main grandstand were half-empty.

Vitaly Petrov of Renault qualified seventh and Michael Schumacher of Mercedes, who won this race a record five times when he was with Ferrari, was eighth after just barely avoiding a first-round elimination in 15th position.

Petrov is racing with a black helmet this weekend following a
Russian plane crash Wednesday that killed 43 people, mostly members
of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Continental Hockey League.

The only significant accident involved Pastor Maldonado, who spun his Williams around at high speed and lost a front wing during the opening session. But the Venezuelan managed to get back out and into Phase 2 and qualified 14th.

With average speeds of 155 mph and top speeds of 211 mph, Monza is the fastest circuit on the calendar, as well as one of the oldest -- with the Italian GP one of only four races to have survived from the first year of F1 in 1950.

The track north of Milan features slow corners followed by long, high-speed straights, which this year means drivers should get optimal use out of their drag reduction systems and the KERS power boosts, perhaps setting up a race filled with overtaking.

Sunday's race marks 10 years since Ferrari's cars competed with
black nose cones following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United

"I was going mountain biking and then I saw on TV that a plane
crashed into the World Trade Center," Vettel said. "But when
you're 14 you don't understand too much, so I still went out
biking. But it's something you'll never forget -- it was the biggest
tragedy during my lifetime. ... I remember watching Ferrari race at
Monza with the black cars."