Sebastian Vettel required a stunning final sector to steal pole position for the American Grand Prix from Mark Webber’s grasp and give Red Bull a fifth front-row lock-out of 2013, ahead of Romain Grosjean.
It is the 44th pole of Vettel’s career and the 8th of 2013.
And number fourty-four proved to be more difficult that at first glance. After dominating Free Practice throughout the weekend the four-time World Champion had been expected to leave a clear gap between himself and his outgoing team mate.
However, Webber continued his fine form in the twilight of his F1 career and held provisional pole position for the majority of Q3. After topping the times following the first run in the top ten shoot-out, Webber found himself half a second up on his previous time as he entered the final third of the crucial lap.
By the end of the lap he could only shave 3/10ths off his previous time and from there he had to wait on the charging Vettel.
Vettel had a lap of opposing fortunes as he dropped time to his team-mate in the opening two sectors, before promptly putting together a stunning final third of the Circuit of Americas to claim the bragging rights at the Milton Keynes squad.
“It was a tricky session as the wind had picked up quite a bit since this morning; it does influence the behaviour of the car and it’s not that easy, especially in the corners,” said Vettel. “I wasn’t that happy with my first run in Q3, but I think I had a solid run at the end which was enough. It was very close with Mark, he seemed to get closer and closer as the weekend went on, so fortunately I was just able to stay ahead.”
The battle behind has been an interesting one since FP1 with a number of cars turning out similar performance – Grosjean was 8/10ths adrift of Vettel’s time today.
The Frenchman is Lotus’ main hope of challenging Mercedes and Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship, and a strong showing today puts him in the best seat for a podium tomorrow.
His new team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, maintained his impressive performance from practice to end the session in eighth place and in with a good chance for his first points since 2009.
Lotus head in to tomorrow in a much better position than their nearest rivals, with Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa bowing out in 15th and 16th places respectively.
Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso meanwhile cover the third row of the grid. Hamilton had looked to be Red Bull’s nearest contender prior to qualifying but his Mercedes team struggled with the balance of the car as wind swept across the track in the first sector. That six-turn snake had been their forte thus far but a 5.4m/s cross-wind meant they could not capitalise.
On the other hand Alonso, who ended Q1 in 15th place, will be satisfied to take sixth as he continues to trouble have with his back injury from Abu Dhabi.
The stars of the day were Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas. Hulkenberg is yet to complete a deal for 2014 but a brilliant fourth place today will do no harm to his quest. Force India are believed to be close to agreeing terms with the German.
Bottas proved that he enjoys North America as he built on his third place qualifying in Montreal to top Q1, take third in Q2, and will start from ninth place tomorrow.
The top ten, for not at least, is completed by Esteban Gutierrez, the Mexican illustrating Sauber’s strong performance at this stage of the season. However, he and Pastor Maldonado came very close in Q1 when a weaving Gutierrez did not see the quickly closing Williams.
The incident was investigated after qualifying, with a ten place grid penalty handed to the Mexican. Max Chilton was hit with and even more severe penalty; the Marussia driver was adjudged to have blocked two cars and so will serve a mandatory drive through penalty in the first five laps of tomorrow’s Grand Prix.
The conditions for qualifying were very strange, with gusty winds blowing from the side down the pit straight and as a tail wind in sector one. This unsettled a number of cars and meant that the first two parts of qualifying were not as fast as expected.
AMERICAN GRAND PRIX, Austin, Qualifying
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m36.338s
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m36.441s +0.103s
3. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m37.155s +0.817s
4. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1m37.296s +0.958s
5. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m37.345s +1.007s
6. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m37.376s +1.038s
7. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m37.452s +1.114s
8. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 1m37.715s +1.377s
9. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m37.836s +1.498s
10. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m38.034s +1.696s
11. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m38.131s +1.066s
12. Paul di Resta Force India 1m38.139s +1.074s
13. Jenson Button McLaren 1m38.217s +1.152s
14. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m38.364s +1.299s
15. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m38.592s +1.527s
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m38.696s +1.631s
17. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m39.250s +1.429s
18. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m39.351s +1.530s
19. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m40.491s +2.670s
20. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m40.528s +2.707s
21. Charles Pic Caterham 1m40.596s +2.775s
22. Max Chilton Marussia 1m41.401s +3.580s