(CNN) -- On the face of Saturday's qualifying results, Ferrari's hopes of closing the gap on the all-conquering Red Bull at the Italian team's home grand prix seem as distant as they have most of this season.
Fernando Alonso will start Sunday's race at Monza fifth on the grid, and a place behind teammate Felipe Massa, while Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber will have the front row to themselves.
Alonso, 46 points behind Formula One championship leader Vettel, had appeared to make up ground on the German in the morning practice session but qualifying did not go to plan.
The Spaniard had hoped to use "towing" tactics behind Massa to boost his lap times, but the Brazilian got too far ahead in the third session and ended up setting a faster pace.
Alonso was heard complaining on his team radio, "Felipe is too far away!" -- and then reportedly called his crew "idiots," though he said it was actually "geniuses."
However, the two-time world champion later downplayed the incident and insisted he was happier this weekend than after the previous race in Belgium, where Alonso qualified ninth and Massa 10th.
"Here at Monza the slipstreaming strategy is often used: having a car three to four seconds ahead of you allows you to gain a few tenths and for that I must thank Felipe, especially in Q3 when I came up behind Vergne's Toro Rosso and he waited for me," Alonso, Alonso, who won the race for Ferrari in 2010 and McLaren in 2007, said on his team's website.
"The radio messages have been misunderstood, as is often the case when you don't experience something first hand: the word 'genius' refers to the fact that we could have got out before Rosberg had gone by on his quick lap, but this should not raise any doubts about the impeccable job from the whole team.
"Today, we were able to run competitively in all three sessions and get closer than ever before to the rear wings of the Red Bulls. For the first time, there are not so many cars between them and us."
Nevertheless, Alonso's best time of one minute 24.142 seconds was well adrift of Vettel's 1:23.755, while Webber clocked 1:23.968.
Vettel is seeking his third victory at Monza, having won there in 2008 with Toro Rosso and again in 2011 on the way to his second of three consecutive world titles.
"We didn't expect to be so strong here, with both cars on the front row," he said after earning his fourth pole this season.
"We've had years where we've had a good car, but not a car that's competitive in low downforce trim, so in that regard we did our homework."
Nico Hulkenberg, whose Sauber is powered by a Ferrari engine, provided the surprise of the day as he clinched third place on the grid in 1:24.065.
"I didn't expect that after a very difficult Friday," said the German, whose teammate Esteban Gutierrez qualified 17th but will start a place higher following Adrian Sutil's penalty.
"Yesterday we struggled a lot with the car and the guys have done a fantastic job turning it around to give me such a competitive car today."
While Hulkenberg boosted his chances of a best finish since placing eighth in Malaysia in March, Mercedes boss Ross Brawn lamented his team's worst qualifying performance this season.
Lewis Hamilton missed final qualifying for the first time in 67 races, and will start 12th on the grid after his run of four successive pole positions ended in miserable style.
Nico Rosberg was back in sixth, having missed most of the morning practice due to hydraulics problems.
"That was our worst qualifying session of the year," Brawn said. "With the standards we set ourselves, that makes this result a real disappointment."
Hamilton refused to blame Sutil for the incident that cost the Force India driver a three-place penalty, demoting the German to 17th as punishment for impeding the British driver as he tried to set a timed lap.
"I just didn't get a lap together in Q2 today and it's hugely disappointing, not just for me, but also for the team and I can only apologize to them as we had a quick car today," said the 2008 world champion, who won the race last year while at McLaren.
"I came off at Parabolica on my first run which damaged the car and it was a downward spiral from there really."
Daniel Ricciardo, who will replace his fellow Australian Webber at Red Bull next season, bounced back from a difficult Friday by qualifying seventh for Toro Rosso -- his teammate Jean Eric Vergne was 10th.
McLaren's struggles continued, with Sergio Perez eighth and 2009 world champion Jenson Button ninth.
Kimi Raikkonen's title hopes receded even further as the Finn was back in 11th for Lotus, with teammate Romain Grosjean 13th.