MONZA, Italy (AP) — Nico Hulkenberg surprised himself and his Sauber team after qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix in third place on Saturday.

While Red Bull's 1-2 front row of championship leader Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber hardly caused a stir, not many observers tipped Hulkenberg to finish just behind them on a Monza track considered the fastest in Formula One.

"We couldn't believe it ourselves. This is fantastic. Nico said it himself, it was the perfect lap," Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said. "It's very important because it gives us the boost we need. We have to keep in mind this is just qualifying. I hope we can take this forward and get a good result tomorrow."

The German driver clocked a best lap of 1:24.065 — compared to Vettel's leading 1:23.755 — and Sauber must think this is becoming a lucky track, given that Sergio Perez finished second last year.

"I don't know (how I did it) either. A really nice surprise, I didn't expect it especially after a very difficult Friday," said the German driver, who was 18th, 16th and 12th in the three practice sessions. "Yesterday we struggled a lot with the car. The guys have done a fantastic job to turn the car around and give me such a competitive car."

The 26-year-old Hulkenberg made a promising start to his Formula One career three years ago, qualifying fifth and scoring his first points with 10th spot at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

But it was his spectacular pole position at the rain-hit Brazilian GP in that season's penultimate race that really impressed, and he was unlucky not to get a F1 seat the following year after Williams dropped him. Force India hired him last year and he got a career-best fourth at the Belgian GP, and nine other top-10 finishes.

This season has proved somewhat more difficult with a best of eighth place at the Malaysian GP in March, while teammate Esteban Gutierrez has yet to score a point in his debut season.

Although Hulkenberg has starred in the rain before at Interlagos, he hopes there won't be a downpour on Sunday.

"I'd like it to stay dry to be honest," he said. "But I'll take it as it comes. I'm open-minded."

 

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