Sebastian Vettel staged a dramatic last minute smash and grab raid on McLaren with a stunning lap to take pole away from Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
It was Vettel’s 14th pole of the season, equalling Nigel Mansell’s record from 1992 and the 29th of his career.
McLaren had controlled the pace throughout the weekend, but in the final crucial phase they lost out to Vettel, who strung together a perfect lap, with a stronger Sector 1 and Sector 2. It seemed that the McLaren didn’t perform quite as well as the Red Bull when the temperature came down to 28 degrees. In Q2 Hamilton did a best time of 1m38.434s and if he had been able to repeat that in Q3 he would have had pole.
Once again Vettel has geared his car expecting pole position, as he did in Monza and a few other places. So he hits the rev limiter on the straights, but his acceleration out of corners is superior. It makes him vulnerable in the race if another car can get within 1 second of him for DRS activation, but he is confident that he can build a lead in the opening laps to stop that happening.
The final practice session before qualifying had shown that the fastest way to use the tyres was to do a quick lap followed by a slower lap and then push again. The third lap should be 2/10ths faster than the first one.
As the qualifying session started in fading light, the temperature had dropped by ten degrees, so everyone needed to locate the grip and find the fastest way to use the tyres.
They went for the first lap in the end, but the falling temperatures played their part.
“We all feel something (as it cools) you can be surprised either way.” said Vettel. “The front grip is affected, but it’s not the same for all cars, it wasn’t the case for me. As it gets cooler it gets quicker, but then after a break it is hard to read the trends.”
In Q1 Rubens Barrichello’s technical problems continued, sidelined by an engine failure on Friday and and oil leak on Saturday morning he didn’t even get to leave the pits and will start what many feel could be his penultimate Grand Prix in 24th place.
Dan Ricciardo got a career best 21st place ahead of Jerome D’Ambrosio and half a second clear of team mate Tonio Liuzzi. He knows this track well having done three days here last year in the Red Bull RB6 during the Young Guns test.
The second session was red flagged when Felipe Massa clouted a kerb very hard and dislodged a bollard, which lay in the middle of the track.
The cut off for the top ten shootout was predicted at 1m 40.5secs and Michael Schumacher was struggling to beat that.
But the Toro Rosso cars underperformed in qualifying with their upgraded car and ended up 13th and 15th. Also eliminated were Petrov, Senna, Kobayashi and Maldonado.
The Venezuelan takes a ten place grid penalty for having to take a ninth engine in the season, which means that the two Williams cars will start at the back of the grid, a very awkward result on a weekend when they are in the spotlight with negotiations with Qatar over a huge sponsorship and the possibility of Kimi Raikkonen coming back with the team.
In Q3 Hamilton controlled the pace, but his second run saw him fall into the clutches of team mate Button who set an almost identical lap time.
Vettel grabbed the initiative and took his 14th career pole.
ABU DHABI GRAND PRIX, Yas Marina, Qualifying
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m38.481s
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m38.622s + 0.141
3. Jenson Button McLaren 1m38.631s + 0.150
4. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m38.858s + 0.377
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m39.058s + 0.577
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m39.695s + 1.214
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m39.773s + 1.292
8. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m40.662s + 2.181
9. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m40.768s + 2.287
10. Paul di Resta Force India
11. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m40.874s + 2.440
12. Vitaly Petrov Renault 1m40.919s + 2.485
13. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 1m41.009s + 2.575
14. Bruno Senna Renault 1m41.079s + 2.645
15. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso 1m41.162s + 2.728
16. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m41.240s + 2.806
17. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m41.760s + 3.326
18. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1m42.979s + 3.197
19. Jarno Trulli Lotus 1m43.884s + 4.102
20. Timo Glock Virgin 1m44.515s + 4.733
21. Daniel Ricciardo HRT 1m44.641s + 4.859
22. Jerome D’Ambrosio Virgin 1m44.699s + 4.917
23. Tonio Liuzzi HRT 1m45.159s + 5.377
24. Rubens Barrichello Williams no time