Sebastian Vettel took pole position for the European Grand Prix at Valencia, ahead of Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton.
It was a terrific qualifying session with the latest developments on several cars closing the performance gap to Red Bull and McLaren at the front. Throughout the three sessions the benchmark moved between Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Renault and it was close until Q3 when the Red Bulls stretched their legs.
It was Vettel’s first pole position since China and the fourth front row lock out for the Red Bull team this season. And this was at a track the team expected to struggle with. It is the first qualifying the team has used the drag reducing F Duct rear wing and it gave them a lot here.
Going into the final qualifying session it seemed there were six drivers capable of taking the pole. The top six in Q2 were covered by 0.15s, but Red Bull was faster when the cars all went onto the hard tyre in Q3. Vettel was only 8/100ths of a second ahead of Webber, the same margin as in Melbourne, but a comfortable four tenths faster than Hamilton in third place.
“It’s good, ” said Vettel. “The last couple of races we didn’t have a smooth run, This circuit shouldn’t be our strongest but we managed to put the car on pole. I had to do it all in the second run. It was a tough one, we reintroduced the F Duct and the mechanics had maybe one or two hours of sleep.”
Robert Kubica looked lively in the Renault en route to sixth place. Jenson Button made a mistake in the final corner and lost a few tenths of a second, which dropped him to 7th. The McLaren is losing time to the Red Bull in the higher speed final sector.
Despite their technical updates this weekend the Ferraris didn’t have the speed in the final reckoning; Alonso was 4th and Massa 5th.
Michael Schumacher toiled due to a problem with braking on his car, it felt like it was pulling to the right in Q1 and he needed his final lap at the end of the session to make it through to Q2. He fared little better, ending up 15th and team mate Rosberg missed the cut as well in 12th place, despite a major set of developments on the car. Both drivers were on the hard tyre to set their times.
“We had a general issue with the tyres not working as in Canada,” said Schumacher. “I was also locking up the brakes, I don’t understand that. We are fighters we know you have those moments when you don’t understand things. With fuel in the car we are strong, it doesn’t help if you qualify back there.
In the new teams battle, Jarno Trulli’s Lotus was the pacesetter, four tenths ahead of the Virgins. Trulli had a new chassis this weekend and is much happier about it. Mentally he has turned a corner and sees this as a new start after a series of car failures.
“We were actually 2.5 seconds off the quickest time in Q1, and percentage wise that’s our best performance of the year so far ” said Lotus technical director Mike Gascoyne. “We’ve moved further away from the competition behind us, so overall it was a very solid performance.”
Lucas di Grassi outqualified his Virgin Racing team mate Timo Glock for the first time this season, by 0.054 of a second.
In Q2 the top six cars were all within 0.16 sec of each other. The Williams cars were in better form than for a long time. Both made it into the top ten shoot out on the race which marked the 100th Grand Prix since their last win. Amazingly the two drivers set identical lap times in Q3. Barrichello felt he could have been in the top six but for a slight issue with his brakes. But it was a far more competitive showing from the team.
Most of the front runners worked on the hard tyres in the first two sessions, doing 2 lap runs with the time coming on the second lap. Hamilton tried the soft tyre at the end of Q2.
After the first runs in Q3, Webber was fastest from Hamilton, Vettel, Button, Massa and Alonso, who had an untidy first run.
In the final runs, Vettel went first and took provisional pole. Hamilton blew his final lap, Webber went ahead of the Briton into second place.
“I’m happy to be here, ” said Hamilton. “We knew that a few people had updates and we saw in practice that we were behind. We didn’t expect to be so far up. I was up on my final lap by a tenth and then I locked up the rears in Turn 12. I thought I would drop back but I was surprised when I came out third.”
EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX, Valencia, Qualifying
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:38.324 1:38.015 1:37.587
2. Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:38.549 1:38.041 1:37.662
3. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:38.697 1:38.158 1:37.969
4. Alonso Ferrari 1:38.472 1:38.179 1:38.075
5. Massa Ferrari 1:38.657 1:38.046 1:38.127
6. Kubica Renault 1:38.132 1:38.062 1:38.137
7. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:38.360 1:38.399 1:38.210
8. Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:38.843 1:38.523 1:38.428
9. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:38.449 1:38.326 1:38.428
10. Petrov Renault 1:39.004 1:38.552 1:38.523
11. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:39.096 1:38.586
12. Rosberg Mercedes 1:38.752 1:38.627
13. Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:39.021 1:38.851
14. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:38.969 1:38.884
15. Schumacher Mercedes 1:38.994 1:39.234
16. de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:39.003 1:39.264
17. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:39.128 1:39.458
18. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:39.343
19. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:40.658
20. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 1:40.882
21. di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 1:42.086
22. Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:42.140
23. Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 1:42.600
24. Senna HRT-Cosworth 1:42.851