Sebastian Vettel made it a hat trick of poles in 2011, setting the fastest ever lap of the Shanghai circuit, no less than seven tenths of a second ahead of the McLaren drivers, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.
It was Vettel’s 18th pole and his third in China. Tomorrow he bids to become the first driver to win the Chinese Grand Prix twice.
“In Q3 we were able to improve by quite a lot,” said Vettel, who was a second faster in Q3 than he had been in Q2. “But it’s a threat to feel too good and I’ll pay attention that doesn’t happen.”
“Sebastian’s pace in Q3 was phenomenal,” said Button for whom P2 is the best grid slot of the season so far.
But if Vettel had it too easy, the real talking point was a terrible mistake on his team mate’s side, which meant that Mark Webber was knocked out in Q1 and lines up 18th on the grid. It is the first time that Red Bull hasn’t had both cars in the top ten since 2009.
Webber had an electrical problem in Saturday morning practice, it was still being worked on at the start of Qualifying. Team boss Christian Horner said that even some of Vettel’s mechanics were involved in the frantic work.
After such a troubled build up, it was perhaps overconfidence on Red Bull’s part to send Webber out on hard tyre on both runs in Q1, when the soft was over a second faster. It left him terribly vulnerable. The team would argue that he should have had enough speed in the car to get through, but he didn’t and they paid a huge price for their hubris. They will have to review the priorities in a situation like that. He suffered warm up problems and managed a best of 1m 36.4 when Vettel also on hards had done 1m 35.6.
And with the midfield teams all using soft tyres, the pace was too much. Webber didn’t miss by a fraction; he was three tenths away from making the cut. “I thought we had enough to get through,” said Webber. “We had a few plates spinning in the background and paid the ultimate price.”
We saw a little of what Paul di Resta is capable of in qualifying; he was under pressure in Q1 when he was P17 with moments to go. He set a lap of 1m 35.702 and went up to P2. It turned out to be his fastest lap of the day and had he repeated it in Q3 he would have been 7th on the grid instead of 8th. But he again outqualified team mate Adrian Sutil;, a great effort after losing the second Friday practice session with a fuel pressure problem.
At the back, Lotus didn’t have the one lap pace in the cold conditions and were again almost two seconds off the slowest of the established teams. Virgin had a better day relative to Hispania, putting a gap of a second between them. However Timo Glock, who had had a frustrating Friday was six tenths off team mate D’Ambrosio.
In Q2 the drama came at the end when Vitaly Petrov’s car broke down on the slowing down lap after setting his time. This brought out a red flag and left just two minutes for the drivers out on track at the time to set a lap. It led to a flurry of cars going out at the end. Many drivers like Alonso had been a long way into their lap when the red flag came out so the tyres had given their best and another set was needed. It was a major compromise on the strategy. Petrov’s team mate Nick Heidfeld was the most compromised, ending up 16th.
Williams had another disappointing afternoon with Barrichello 15th and Maldonado 17th.
Both Toro Rossos made it through to Q3 after very strong laps in Q2, which they couldn’t repeat in Q3. But nevetheless a return of 7th for Alguersuari and 9th for Buemi show the enormous gain that Toro Rosso has made. This is symbolically very important for F1 as it shows that a small team can challenge for the top ten.
But another crucial theme from today was the relative importance of qualifying to the race. We some tactical thinking from Lewis Hamilton, who decided to only do one run in Q3 to save a soft set of tyres for the race. The gamble didn’t work for him in the sense that he ended up third behind his team mate Button, who did two runs.
But Hamilton seemed pleased with his decision as he was thinking about the tactics for the race more than qualifying. He now has a new set of soft and a new set of hard tyres for the race. After running out of tyres in Malaysia, he doesn’t want a repeat this weekend. It shows how strategic thinking is beginning to impact on qualifying.
Rosberg did a great job to qualify fourth ahead of both Ferraris, especially as team mate Michael Schumacher was only 14th, after a problem with his DRS wing at Turn 14 on his hot lap. That’s a really bitter pill for the seven times champion to swallow.
Meanwhile the gulf in qualifying pace between Ferrari and the Red Bull team was highlighted with Alonso’s time which was 1.4 seconds slower than Vettel. Massa did well to qualify less than 1/10th of a second slower than his team mate.
CHINESE GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m33.706s
2. Jenson Button McLaren 1m34.421s + 0.715
3. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m34.463s + 0.757
4. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m34.670s + 0.964
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m35.119s + 1.413
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m35.145s + 1.439
7. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso 1m36.158s + 2.452
8. Paul di Resta Force India1m36.190s + 2.484
9. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 1m36.203s + 2.497
10. Vitaly Petrov Renault No time
11. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m35.874s + 1.388
12. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m36.053s + 1.567
13. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m36.236s + 1.750
14. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m36.457s + 1.971
15. Rubens Barrichello Williams 1m36.465s + 1.979
16. Nick Heidfeld Renault 1m36.611s + 2.125
17. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m36.956s + 2.470
18. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m36.468s + 1.196
19. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1m37.894s + 2.622
20. Jarno Trulli Lotus 1m38.318s + 3.046
21. Jerome D’Ambrosio Virgin 1m39.119s + 3.847
22. Timo Glock Virgin 1m39.708s + 4.436
23. Tonio Liuzzi HRT 1m40.212s + 4.940
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m40.445s + 5.173
All cars within 107%.