Sebastian Vettel took his 12th pole position of the season, rather unexpectedly, as the pace setter McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton failed to get a final run in Q3 due to a timing error.
Jenson Button, who had set the fastest times in all three practice sessions, ended up second by one hundredth of a second, his first front row start since Monaco.
Having set the fastest time in the first runs, as he ended his out lap for his second Hamilton was passed by Schumacher and Webber and crossed the line after the chequered flag had fallen. He blamed the two drivers who had passed him for creating a “dangerous” situation.
Team boss Martin Whitmarsh said that Hamilton had been told not to let any cars pass and the Englishman seemed to be caught unawares when the pair blasted past him, Schumacher cutting the chicane in order to do so.
Hamilton said, “I felt I had a couple of tenths left so I felt I was in position. It was dangerous at the last corner, where I had Mark attacking me, so that’s why I lost the lap.
“It was my mistake,” he added later. “I should have got out sooner but I was making a wing change and I went out too late.”
Schumacher said the situation was “stupid” and went on “everyone was driving so slowly. I could see the time. It was tight for all three of us.” He too didn’t get a second lap in.
It was clear that Red Bull had expected to lose their 100% qualifying record from the reaction of Vettel’s engineer, who said via radio as soon as the lap was over, “Pole position, how about that?”
Vettel, who crashed on Friday, said that he had been “too slow” in final practice and managed to “get everything out of the car in qualifying.”
Saving tyres was at the top of everyone’s agenda in qualifying and this made for a lacklustre spectacle, which is a shame given the intensity of the competition at the front, with Red Bull’s 100% pole record, stretching back 14 races to the start of the season, under threat.
In part one of qualifying, among the front runners, Alonso had the edge over Hamilton, Button and Vettel all using the slower medium tyre.
Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi saw an opportunity and went out on the soft tyres to set the fastest time in Q1.
Nico Rosberg had problems on the Mercedes, not managing to set a competitive time due to hydraulic problems. He starts a season worst 23rd on the grid tomorrow. It was the first time this season he didn’t make it into Q3.
This left an extra place open for one of the midfield teams in the top ten, which Sauber, Force India and Renault were all competing for.
Petrov took 8th, Senna recovered from his morning accident to claim 9th and Kobayashi 10th, giving the Japanese fans something to smile about.
But it was clear that everyone was desperate to save tyres and limited their running accordingly. Alguersuari and Buemi didn’t do a second run in Q2, neither did the top seven runners. Perez had a hydraulic problem on top of a bad cold and didn’t set a time in Q2. He starts in 17th tomorrow.
Neither of the Force India cars made it into the top ten.
In Q3 Kobayashi went out on medium tyres to set a time, this was to cover any driver thinking of not running in Q3.
In Q3 both Schumacher and Hamilton failed to cross the line in time to start their lap, a horrible operational error which cost him pole position. He had been 3/10ths faster than Button in Q2, but didn’t get the run in when it counted.
It summed up Hamilton’s season of missed opportunities. He could and should have had pole position this weekend, with Red Bull the most vulnerable it has been in qualifying this year.
Although he faces a severe test from McLaren in tomorrow’s race, Vettel needs only one point to clinch his second consecutive world championship.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m30.466s
2. Jenson Button McLaren 1m30.475s + 0.009
3. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m30.617s + 0.151
4. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m30.804s + 0.338
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m30.886s + 0.420
6. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m31.156s + 0.690
7. Michael Schumacher Mercedes No time
8. Bruno Senna Renault No time
9. Vitaly Petrov Renault No time
10. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber No time
11. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m32.463
12. Paul di Resta Force India 1m32.746
13. Rubens Barrichello Williams 1m33.079
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m33.224
15. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 1m33.227
16. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso 1m33.427
17. Sergio Perez Sauber No Time
18. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1m35.454s
19. Jarno Trulli Lotus-Renault 1m35.514s
20. Jerome D’Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth 1m36.439s
21. Timo Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1m36.507s
22. Daniel Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth 1m37.846s
23. Nico Rosberg Mercedes No time
24. Tonio Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth No time