Sebastian Vettel has claimed pole position in Monaco – probably the most important of the season.

The entire qualifying session was a tight scrap between McLaren and Red Bull, with Lewis Hamilton apparently having the upper hand in the first two rounds. But at the crucial moment, Vettel drove a virtually flawless lap, leaving the opposition no chance. No-one has ever set a faster time on the Monaco circuit.

Hamilton was unlucky in Q3, because he was on his flying lap as the red flags came out for the smash involving Sergio Perez at the harbour chicane. The Mexican took a highly eccentric line coming out of the tunnel, lost control of his Sauber and smashed side on into the barrier at the chicane exit.

The emergency crew were out on track for a long time and, because there was no response over the radio, there was some initial concern for Perez. News then came in that he was conscious and able to talk after being removed from the car. He was complaining about pain in his legs but was also asking if he would be permitted to drive in Sunday's race.

After repair work to the barrier, the remaining 2 minutes 26 seconds of qualifying took place, although there was never any likelihood of anyone getting near Vettel's lap time. Jenson Button will start the race alongside the pole-sitter, with Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso on the second row. Hamilton, who had looked so strong in Q1 and Q2, is back in seventh place, behind even Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa. Nico Rosberg, Pastor Maldonado and Perez complete the Top 10.

HRT played no part at all in today's qualifying. Tonio Liuzzi's car was still under repair after his accident in the morning practice session, and Narain Karthikeyan had a problem with his rear suspension. There is a question mark over whether the team will be represented on the grid tomorrow.