MONTE CARLO, Monaco, May 26, 2012 (AFP / Tim Collings) - Michael Schumacher rolled back
the years on Saturday with the fastest lap in qualifying for Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix, although Australian Red Bull driver Mark Webber will start the race from pole position.
In this season of the unexpected and the unpredictable, few could have suggested that the 43-year-old German, a seven-time champion who has been under fire for his poor form, would have produced such a performance ahead of the season's most glamorous race.
But he did it in astonishing fashion with a flying late lap in his Mercedes around the twisting barrier-lined street circuit to outdo the Red Bull of Webber.
It was a great lap, but to little real avail because he brought a five-place grid penalty with him to the Monaco race weekend from the Spanish Grand Prix, following his collision there with Brazilian Bruno Senna of Lotus.
As a result, pole will be taken by Webber, who posted the second fastest lap and is looking for his second victory in the principality having previously won in 2010.
Schumacher's best lap of 1min 14.301secs stunned his team and his rivals and he drove a lap of the circuit with one finger in the air in celebration before blowing kisses to the fans and then kissing his car.
It would have been the 69th pole position of his astonishing career and would have given him a great opportunity -- having made his comeback after a three-year retirement -- to deliver a 92nd win. But, from sixth, it is a different story.
Schumacher said: "I'm obviously excited. It confirmed what I have felt for a long time. Sometimes you have to put everything at the right moment together. Here it worked out.
"Thanks to the team, in particular to some of the guys who work closely with me. We had a special session earlier this week. I'm grateful to all the trust Mercedes had in me and supported me.
"I'm able to give back a little bit in qualifying and hope I can give more back tomorrow (Sunday)."
Fellow German, and Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg was third fastest ahead of Briton Lewis Hamilton of McLaren, Frenchman Romain Grosjean of Lotus, two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and his team-mate Brazilian Felipe Massa.
All except the Ferrari men will advance a place on the grid thanks to Schumacher's extraordinary day and his penalty.
"It was very exciting and very tough, it was one of the toughest qualifying sessions for me for some time," said Hamilton, who will start third.
"I'm fortunate that Michael has the penalty so it puts us further ahead. I think it will be a tough race though.
"Tyres and strategy play a huge part in Monaco, but if we can get a good start then we have a good chance. I have a good feeling about the weekend. "I have two good drivers in front of me but I'll do everything I can."
Finn Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 champion, was eighth for Lotus ahead of Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado of Williams and defending champion German Sebastian Vettel, who qualified 10th for Red Bull.
Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn said of Schumacher's efforts: "I have to confess it took a little tear from my eye. He's been in good shape all weekend.
"It all came together in qualifying. The penalty is frustrating but that's the way it is. Making the best of the tyres is going to be the critical thing. That's going to be the next challenge."
Earlier in the day, Mexican Sergio Perez crashed out in Q1 after losing control of his Sauber in the swimming pool complex.
And Q2 claimed another major victim when Briton Jenson Button missed the cut and qualified only 13th for McLaren at a circuit where he scored his last pole in 2009.
Button said: "I don't have the pace. That's it really. This morning the car felt good, the pace was really strong, but we didn't have it this afternoon when it counts."