|© AP photo/Alberto Saiz
After making strides in recent races, Ferrari took a big step backwards at qualifying for the European Grand Prix on Saturday.
Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa both failed to reach the third leg of the qualifying session, and will start 11th and 13th in Sunday's race at the tight Valencia street circuit known for awarding front-runners.
"I am very disappointed because I was hoping for something better," said Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, who watched his team's poor performance first-hand. "The positions on the starting grid definitely don't reflect the worth of today's Ferrari."
The Italian team had improved its pace since starting the season with a qualifying session in Australian that left Alonso in 12th and Massa in 16th.
And while Massa struggled throughout Saturday's qualifying session to make a strong flying lap, Alonso looked safe until Lotus' Romain Grosjean ripped off a last-second run to better the Spaniard's time and knock him out of contention for the top spots on the grid.
Alonso missed entering the final ten-minute section of qualifying by 0.188 seconds. Massa was only 0.261 seconds adrift.
"You can sell the race however you want, but we will start 11th and try to take as many points as possible," said Alonso, who had earned two third-place starts in the previous three races thanks to upgrades to his car.
To make matters worse for Alonso, his two main rivals for the championship are sitting way ahead in the front row.
Two-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel will start from pole position, with points leader Lewis Hamilton alongside him in second.
Heading into the eighth race of the tightly contested season that has seen seven winners in as many rounds, McLaren's Hamilton has two more points than Alonso, with Vettel of Red Bull a further point adrift.
"This result is a cold shower," said Alonso, a two-time champion himself. "The podium is out of reach and clearly, with Hamilton on the front row, it's easy to expect that we will lose ground to him."
It appears that the problem was not the cars' top speed, but yet another mistake in strategy.
Ferrari tried to save its faster soft tyres for the final period of qualifying so it could take a shot at pole, and in the process opened the door for other drivers to slip ahead and leave them out of the top ten.
Two weeks ago at the Canadian Grand Prix, Ferrari's one-stop strategy backfired as Alonso lost pace down the stretch on his worn tires and slid from the head of the race to a fifth-place finish.
"It's obviously sad and there is no point hiding the fact," Alonso said.
After failing to crack the top ten in qualifying through the first five races of the season, Massa had earned a sixth- and seventh-place start in his previous two outings. He also had said he was feeling much more comfortable and confident in his car.
"With hindsight, it's easy to say that if we had used two sets of soft (tyres) we could have made the cut, but we wanted to be in the best possible shape for Q3," Massa said.
The Brazilian's future with the Scuderia has been the subject of rumours all season long. Now it appears the entire team will be under pressure on Sunday to have a good race.
Hamilton still expects Ferrari to compete despite the setback.
"It's going to be a real tough race, it's going to be a real mixture because some people have very good long runs like the Lotuses and Ferraris and Saubers," Hamilton said.
Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber also had a poor qualifying session.
The German great will start between Alonso and Massa, while mechanical trouble hobbled Webber's Red Bull and left him in 19th.