Sebastian Vettel took a dramatic pole position at the very end of qualifying to steal pole position from McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton by a tenth of a second.
It was a great showing from the pair, who eclipsed their team mates once again. Webber was third for Red Bull, a full three tenths off Vettel, while Button was a similar margin behind in fourth.
But the resurgence of Hamilton and McLaren gives this race weekend a real bite and there is a good chance of him winning the race. It should certainly be a good battle for victory in tomorrow’s Grand Prix. The McLaren looked after its tyres well in Melbourne and appeared strong on that again in Friday afternoon’s long runs. Vettel will be under pressure during the long, hot race. There is a 60% chance of rain, just to mix things up even more.
Nick Heidfeld did a great job in the Renault to split the two Ferraris in 6th place. Ferrari have been struggling again for speed this weekend. Massa has said that the car lacks grip, there is talk of a lack of downforce at the front in particular. Alonso was a second off the pole position pace, while Massa was four tenths behind his team mate.
In Q1 the Lotus cars came closer to the established teams than they managed in Australia. Heikki Kovalainen was less than four tenths slower than the Williams of Maldonado. Revealingly, Lotus was two seconds faster than Virgin. While Hispania qualified for a race for the first time this year under the 107% rule and were just half a second slower than the slowest of the Virgin cars.
In Q2 Renault took the gamble to do only one run, to save a set of tyres and it worked for both drivers. Mercedes had been struggling for pace throughout qualifying, being forced to use a set of soft tyres in Q1 and in the closing stages of Q2 Rosberg popped in a lap which pushed team mate Schumacher out of the top ten shootout. Also out were the Force India cars, with Paul di Resta ahead of team mate Adrian Sutil.
Vettel became the first man to set a lap in the 1m 35s, but Jenson Button showed McLaren’s pace by going faster. It was a difficult session for Williams, who could manage only 15th and 18th places, Barrichello ahead of Maldonado, who was eliminated in Q1.
Into Q3 on the first runs, Hamilton set the fastest time ahead of Vettel, Webber and Button. They were the only four cars to opt to do two runs in Q3. Button made a small change which gave him some oversteer and he couldn’t make the step forward he had hoped.
The final runs were thrilling, with Hamilton and Vettel in a duel for pole position. McLaren made best use of the Mercedes engine and KERS, which have the edge over Red Bull’s Renault package as well as the updates to the exhaust blown diffuser. Fittingly, a podium on Sunday for either McLaren would be their 200th in partnership with Mercedes. It is an amazing comeback for the Woking team from the horrors of winter testing.
Under pressure from McLaren, Red Bull also used KERS in qualifying for the first time in its history, but team boss Christian Horner said that there was a slight concern on Webber’s unit which may have contributed to him losing time to Vettel. In fact it looks more like Webber lost a couple of tenths in the final corner.
Both Red Bull cars start on the clean side of the grid, which is always an advantage at Sepang, but Hamilton can stay with him tomorrow and tyre management will be critical with higher levels of degradation than in Melbourne.
“We learned a lot in Australia but here the tyres don’t last as long,” said Vettel. “It’s much hotter and tougher for the tyres, but we are pretty happy with it. ”
“I don’t think we can be disappointed,” said Hamilton. “We’ve done a fantastic job to be up with the Red Bulls. Of course I would have loved to be in P1 but these guys still have the edge. We always expected that they had something in hand for the last run.”
Hamilton and Webber will be mindful of the quirk of Sepang – Pole on this track doesn’t seem to give as big an advantage as it does on other tracks – only one of the last four Malaysian GPs has been won from pole (2009), and the polesitter has failed to lead the first lap three times in the last four years.
Interestingly they have moved the pole position from the outside to the inside this year.
MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m34.870s
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m34.974s + 0.104
3. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m35.179s + 0.309
4. Jenson Button McLaren 1m35.200s + 0.330
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m35.802s + 0.932
6. Nick Heidfeld Renault 1m36.124s + 1.254
7. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m36.251s + 1.381
8. Vitaly Petrov Renault 1m36.324s + 1.454
9. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m36.809s + 1.939
10. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m36.820s + 1.950
11. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m37.035s
12. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 1m37.160s
13. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso 1m37.347s
14. Paul di Resta Force India 1m37.370s
15. Rubens Barrichello Williams 1m37.496s
16. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m37.528s
17. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m37.593s
18. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m38.276s
19. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1m38.645s
20. Jarno Trulli Lotus 1m38.791s
21. Timo Glock Virgin 1m40.648s
22. Jerome D’Ambrosio Virgin 1m41.001s
23. Tonio Liuzzi HRT 1m41.549s
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m42.574s
The 107% cut off time was 1m43.516s