Sebastian Vettel claimed his sixth pole position of the season and surely one of the more important, to put one hand on the world championship crown, as fellow contender Fernando Alonso could only manage eighth place for Austin’s inaugural United States Grand Prix.
A win tomorrow would mean that Vettel would need at worst a 6th place finish on Brazil to be champion, regardless of Alonso’s results, but if Alonso doesn’t climb at least five places from his grid slot, the German will be champion tomorrow night.
Vettel maintained his supremacy from free practice to top every phase of qualifying and illustrate his continued dominance at this stage of the season, on his 100th GP weekend. He is to be joined on the front-row by Lewis Hamilton, who pushed the Red Bulls harder than they anticipated, with Mark Webber unable to match his team mate in third.
Webber and Michael Schumacher were under investigation after qualifying but nothing resulted from it.
Red Bull need just four points to take their third consecutive Constructor’s title tomorrow and with both cars in the top three it would take a pile up or a reliability disaster to stop the Milton Keynes based squad from doing so.
Vettel seems to have found a way around this circuit, particularly the final sector with the tricky Turn 19 that has caught out so many drivers and the triple apex Turn 17. He improved lap after lap during the first two phases of qualifying and heading in to the final shoot-out it looked as if nobody would be able to get within half a second of Vettel, let alone beat the double World Champion to pole.
However, a highly motivated Hamilton made it an exciting battle as they exchanged fastest sector times and he came within 1/10th of stopping Vettel secure the 36th pole position of his career and his fourth in five races.
Hamilton seemed to be the best of the rest behind the Red Bull pair, but he hustled his McLaren around the new circuit and was able to split the two. Although, the result will be bittersweet for the Briton as the even numbered side of the grid is highly disadvantaged at the start of the race due to very low grip levels, meaning maintaining second position will be his prerogative tomorrow.
Estimates of one second difference in the run to Turn 1 have been mentioned between the clean and dirty sides of the grid. Hamilton will have to come across to the clean side as soon as possible at the start to avoid being swallowed up.
Alonso has struggled throughout the weekend, ending qualifying slower than Felipe Massa as he couldn’t get the best from the tyres and will need another rabbit-out-of-the-hat race to stop Vettel from heading to Brazil as a three-time World Champion. If Vettel is to claim victory tomorrow then Alonso will need to finish fourth or better to take the fight to the final race of the season.
“We never managed to put together the best lap,” said Alonso. ” We knew it would be a complicated weekend but clearly today we were too slow and we will start from too far back.”
With a conservative approach to the tyre selection by Pirelli it has been clear during the weekend that a one-stop race is very likely. This also meant that the cars needed to complete a run of three to five laps on the option tyre to produce the fastest lap, a point which proved crucial in this morning’s final free practice. However, temperatures rose dramatically before qualifying and it became easier to bring the tyres up to operating temperature.
In the colder temperatures of FP3 McLaren showed very strong pace on the longer prime tyre runs, which could offer Hamilton a chance tomorrow should the weather allow it. The sister McLaren of Jenson Button suffered a power issue in Q2 and will start the race in 12th place.
Behind the top three, Romain Grosjean had an impressive session taking into account his lack of running in practice, taking fourth place ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen, but he will be demoted five places down the grid due to a gearbox change.
This will push Michael Schumacher up to fifth place in his penultimate Grand Prix, the veteran producing a stellar performance whilst Nico Rosberg will begin the race in 17th place.
The Force India of Nico Hulkenberg proved right his recent employment with Sauber as he will take seventh, after Grosjean’s penalty, as team mate Paul Di Resta could only manage 13th.
Behind Alonso is Pastor Maldonado, the Venezuelan completing the top ten after once again having a strong Saturday. It looked as if the Williams could have been even more of a threat during the early phases of the session, but they were unable to improve in the same way as the top teams.
Another notably strong performance came from Jean-Eric Vergne, the Frenchman taking 14th place and his best start since the Spanish GP. He has been the victim of the Q1 drop-zone eight times this year, but today it was the turn of team mate Daniel Ricciardo.
Crucially at the tail end of the field both Marussia cars were able to out-qualify the Caterham duo and give themselves a very good chance of maintaining tenth place in the Constructor’s Championship.
[More to follow]
UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX, Austin, Qualifying
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m35.657s
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m35.766s + 0.109
3. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m36.174s + 0.517
4. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m36.587s + 0.930
5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m36.708s + 1.051
6. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m36.794s + 1.137
7. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m36.937s + 1.280
8. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1m37.141s + 1.484
9. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m37.300s + 1.643
10. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m37.842s + 2.185
11. Bruno Senna Williams 1m37.604s + 1.808
12. Jenson Button McLaren 1m37.616s + 1.820
13. Paul di Resta Force India 1m37.665s + 1.869
14. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m37.879s + 2.083
15. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m38.206s + 2.410
16. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m38.437s + 2.641
17. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m38.501s + 2.705
18. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m39.114s + 2.556
19. Timo Glock Marussia 1m40.056s + 3.498
20. Charles Pic Marussia 1m40.664s + 4.106
21. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1m40.809s + 4.251
22. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1m41.166s + 4.608
23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1m42.011s + 5.453
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m42.740s + 6.182