Sebastian Vettel took pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix and with Red Bull looking very fast this weekend, he looks set to close the gap on Fernando Alonso in the championship.
It was Vettel’s 34th pole position, his fourth in a row at Suzuka, which puts him third in the all time pole position list ahead of Alain Prost and Jim Clark. Vettel is only 25 years old and has just Senna and Schumacher ahead of him in the list of pole sitters, the ultimate benchmark of speed.
And with Mark Webber alongside him on the front row, it showed that Red Bull is peaking at the right moment and very well placed to attack for the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the final races.
It will be a big Sunday for Fernando Alonso, who will be mindful that his championship lead could take a hammering tomorrow.
But qualifying ended in anti climax as a spin for Kimi Raikkonen in the final runs brought out yellow flags and meant that the cars behind him on the track were not able to improve. This cost Hamilton, who ended up 9th and Webber, who couldn’t challenge Vettel and also Alonso, while Kobayashi appeared to have done his fastest sector passing yellow flags, en route to fourth place.
He set his fastest time on that lap, but his dashboard display showed that he lost 1/10th of a second in the yellow flag zone and the stewards let him keep his time.
Jenson Button was third, but will move back five places on the grid this moves Kobayashi to 3rd and, Alonso to fifth.
“After today I think I have a good chance of a podium,” Kobayashi said. “For me it’s very important, of course, for next year.
“But I have no worries for next year. I try to focus on my job at the moment…and I think I need a podium as well. I think this week is very important.”
The word has been for some time that a podium would secure the drive for Kobayashi and tomorrow, on home soil, could be his chance.
Meanwhile Vettel knows he is in the driving seat as this weekend starts to feel like the 2011 season all over again, “I’m very happy, the car feels fantastic around here, it came together well and we are in for a very good race tomorrow. This place is special. The lap I had in qualifying was just right,” said Vettel.
Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel went into qualifying with real confidence, while Alonso, who hadn’t started on the front row since Germany in July, looked to be on the back foot. He ended up seventh, behind Grosjean in fifth and Grosjean sixth. They both move up one place with Button’s penalty.
Lewis Hamilton had a difficult session, a last minute decision to change set up after practice backfired and the McLaren driver lacked turn-in en route to 9th.
Jenson Button carried a five place gearbox grid penalty into the session, while Michael Schumacher had a ten place drop for the Singapore Grand Prix accident.
Nico Hulkenberg was late out onto the circuit after an off in practice; both Force India drivers pushing a little too hard this weekend, knowing that they were under consideration for a Ferrari seat next year.
As many drivers, including both Ferraris and Lotus cars were forced to take the soft tyre in Q1 to be sure, Michael Schumacher cut it fine but managed to get through into Q2 on the hard tyre, having crossed the line with four seconds to spare before the chequered flag to start the lap.
Bruno Senna was blocked by Jean Eric Vergne on his hot lap and was eliminated; something for which he was penalised three grid slots by stewards. It comes at a very tough time for Senna with the driver market heating up.
In Q2 Massa again had the 3/10ths margin over Alonso, while Michael Schumacher went out at the end only on a set of soft tyres, thinking of the race and having lots of new soft tyres.
Vettel, Button and Webber did not go out for a second run in Q2, meaning that they had two new sets of soft tyres for Q3.
Having looked good, Massa failed to improve when it mattered and was eliminated following his second Q2 run, while team mate Alonso found speed.
Also eliminated were both Mercedes drivers, Maldonado, Di Resta and the Toro Rosso pair. Di Resta was badly compromised by traffic into the chicane, as drivers were queuing to start hot laps and he also made a mistake on his hot lap.
Nico Hulkenberg meanwhile showed some determination and resilience, getting into Q3 despite starting the session late; recovering well from his practice three accident.
On the first runs in Q3, Vettel did 1m 30.839, while Webber was 2/10ths slower, despite a mistake, with Button third. Hamilton was 6th after the first runs.
But Kimi Raikkonen ruined the climax to qualifying by going off track on the final runs, bringing out yellow flags, which really hurt Lewis Hamilton. Vettel pitted, Webber couldn’t improve and the drama fizzed out.
Only a couple of drivers Button and Grosjean were lucky to be a bit further behind and managed to get through after the yellow flags had gone in.
Tomorrow’s race will be a very strategic one with tyre wear and tyre degradation likely.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, Suzuka, Qualifying
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m30.839s
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m31.090s + 0.251
3. Jenson Button McLaren 1m31.294s + 0.451*
4. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m31.700s + 0.861
5. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m31.989s + 1.059
6. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m32.022s + 1.183
7. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m32.114s + 1.275
8. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m32.208s + 1.369
9. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m32.327s + 1.488
10. Nico Hulkenberg Force India no time *
11. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m32.293s + 0.792
12. Paul di Resta Force India 1m32.327s + 0.826
13. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m32.469s + 0.968**
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m32.512s + 1.011
15. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m32.625s + 1.124
16. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m32.954s + 1.453
17. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m33.368s + 1.867 ***
18. Bruno Senna Williams 1m33.405s + 1.376
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1m34.657s + 2.628
20. Timo Glock Marussia 1m35.213s + 3.184
21. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1m35.385s + 3.356
22. Charles Pic Marussia 1m35.429s + 3.400
23. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1m35.432s + 3.403
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m36.734s + 4.705
* Button & HUlkenberg – five place drop for gearbox change
** Schumacher – 10 place drop for accident in Singapore
*** Vergne – 3 place drop for blocking Senna