Lewis Hamilton rediscovered his form in qualifying for the Korean Grand Prix, breaking the stranglehold Red Bull have enjoyed on pole position since November 2010.
It is his 19th career pole position and his first for 27 Grands Prix, stretching back to Canada 2010.
Although Red Bull’s tactics showed that they had accepted they were not going to be able to beat McLaren to pole, Vettel nevertheless managed to fight Hamilton and to split the McLarens on the grid.
Hamilton was on sensational form, setting a time three tenths of a second faster than team mate Jenson Button and squeezing out Sebastian Vettel to second place.
The last non-Red Bull pole was Nico Hulkenberg in Brazil last November.
Despite his scintillating lap, Hamilton was not triumphant, quite the reverse in fact, “I’m happy and very proud of what the team have achieved over the last two races,” said a subdued Hamilton, who was mindful that the race is the important part. He clearly feels that this weekend offers him a chance for redemption after a troubled season and a chance to put right much of what has gone wrong in recent months, particularly his off form performance in Japan last weekend.
Jenson Button had to change chassis on Saturday morning, but still managed to set the fastest time in the final practice session.
Felipe Massa outqualified Fernando Alonso despite using an old front wing, while the Spaniard had a new development wing. He aborted his final run.
In Q1, Red Bull were the only top team to use a set of supersoft tyres, a very unusual tactic, which they used again in Q2, their idea being to save three new sets of soft tyres for the race. Meanwhile McLaren had a good margin at the front.
Williams left it late to go out and it misfired for Barrichello, who had to back out of his final lap and ended up being eliminated.
Kovalainen was the fastest of the new teams, just under a second off Barrichello’s time. Team mate Trulli was well off, blaming the lack of the new power steering system. Ricciardo didn’t set a lap time, he was told that the car was ailing on his out lap with a water leak.
In Q2 Massa had to do a second run using up a set of supersofts. The Brazilian was using the standard front wing while Alonso had a new development wing.
Force India were again on the pace, with both cars making it into Q3, while Michael Schumacher was eliminated after doing a single run with a vibration.
Vitaly Petrov got himself into Q3, but Bruno Senna on his birthday was well off his pace in 15th place.
In Q3 Hamilton had it all under control, narrowly beating Vettel on the first runs and opening up a larger margin in the second runs.
As far as the tactics for the race are concerned, McLaren’s drivers have done five laps on one set of soft tyres, while Red Bull has three new sets of softs for the race, so they have a slight advantage there if they all need to do three stints on softs. It could be a three or four stop strategy tomorrow and clearly with very little dry running on which to base predictions, strategists will be feeling their way in the race.
The first stop will come early to get off the worn supersofts, but from there on stretching out the soft tyre stints will be key.
KOREAN GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m35.820s
2. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m36.042s + 0.222
3. Jenson Button McLaren 1m36.126s + 0.306
4. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m36.468s + 0.648
5. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m36.831s + 1.011
6. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m36.980s + 1.160
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m37.754s + 1.934
8. Vitaly Petrov Renault 1m38.124s + 2.304
9. Paul di Resta Force India no time
10. Adrian Sutil Force India no time
11. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso 1m38.315s + 1.789
12. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m38.354s + 1.828
13. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 1m38.508s + 1.982
14. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m38.775s + 2.249
15. Bruno Senna Renault 1m38.791s + 2.265
16. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m39.189s + 2.663
17. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m39.443s + 2.917
18. Rubens Barrichello Williams 1m39.538s + 2.013
19. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1m40.522s + 2.997
20. Jarno Trulli Lotus 1m41.101s + 3.576
21. Timo Glock Virgin 1m42.091s + 4.566
22. Jerome D’Ambrosio Virgin 1m43.483s + 5.958
23. Tonio Liuzzi HRT 1m43.758s + 6.233
24. Daniel Ricciardo HRT no time