Sebastian Vettel needed just one lap at the end of qualifying to claim a sensational pole position in Valencia ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Pastor Maldonado.
The Red Bull driver had struggled in an ultra competitive Q2 session and used up two sets of option tyres getting into Q3, leaving him with only one new set for Q3. But he managed the situation and pulled out his usual optimum lap to grab the pole.
But the Lotus cars are poised to play a role in the outcome of the Grand Prix, when track conditions are expected to be hot and with the car’s ability to make one stop less than its immediate rivals, it could make for a very interesting strategic race tomorrow. Vettel looks very strong in the Red Bull, but both Lotus drivers could have a say in the podium, so Vettel and Hamilton will have to work hard tomorrow.
“It will be a difficult race and difficult to predict,” said Vettel. “We have seen too much this year to sit here on Saturday afternoon and predict what is going to happen. It will be hotter tomorrow and there will be a lot of cars to look out for.”
In a session where Vettel showed the kind of qualifying confidence he had in 2011, the Red Bull driver claimed his 33rd pole position, 0.3 seconds clear of Hamilton, to prove that widespread changes to the RB8 have very much given the team a step forward. The same can not be said for the sister Red Bull of Mark Webber who carried a technical issue with the hydraulics operating his DRS wing from practice in to qualifying and could not make his way out of Q1 with just one run on the option tyres and will start the race in 19th position. He was 7/10ths slower than Vettel despite having no DRS wing, which he reckoned to be worth 1.3 seconds a lap.
The Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were disappointed, both eliminated in Q2, along with Michael Schumacher in the Mercedes and they will start the race from outside the top ten. It was an extremely closely fought Q2, at the climax of which the top seven drivers were covered by just 0.1 seconds. Alonso and Massa both used a set of prime tyres for their first run in Q2 where all others opted for the option compound. When they made their second run, this time with the option compound, they were unable to find the necessary time to make their way in to Q3. They were only 2/10ths off the fastest time in Q2, but so close was the field, it wasn’t enough to take them through. Although the ability to have a free choice of tyres for tomorrows Grand Prix may soften the blow.
“We were not quick enough,” Alonso said. “Normally if you get into Q3 it is because you deserve it and because you do the job. We will try to recover tomorrow and try to gain some positions.”
In the final minutes of the top-ten shootout pole position changed hands many times as Nico Rosberg’s provisional pole was beaten by Romain Grosjean and then Maldonado before Vettel followed up on his practice pace to take his third pole of 2012.
Hamilton was the best of the rest, pipping Maldonado to continue his consistency of front-row starts. The McLaren driver once again outshone Jenson Button with the pacesetter in this morning’s final practice only managing ninth place, after a tricky build up to the race for McLaren,
“I expected to be a lot further back,” said Hamilton. “We struggled all weekend and into qualifying I had to make some guesses as to what set-up I wanted, and it seems to work. I’m really, really surprised. The guys did a great job to get me a good lap and the car felt pretty good. The gap is still quite big so it will be quite a tough race tomorrow as always.”
Joining Maldonado on the second row is Grosjean in the Lotus. Both cars had threatened to take pole position but will both be more than satisfied with their afternoon’s work, particularly Grosjean who also showed very good race pace during the longer runs in free practice.
The third row is occupied by Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg, with Raikkonen’s result confirming that Lotus have turned around their qualifying performance. Rosberg was near the head of the field for the duration of the session, however he failed to improve on his Q2 time where Vettel found 0.5 seconds. He claimed Hamilton had blocked him, but the stewards went through it with Hamilton and found nothing wrong with the McLaren driver’s conduct.
Kamui Kobayashi and Nico Hulkenberg both beat their respective team-mates to claim seventh and eighth positions. Kobayashi in particular putting in a very good performance just 0.3 off a front row start.
Paul Di Resta completed the top ten, after briefly setting the fastest first sector time in Q3. A mistake in Turn 17 meant that a possible top six qualifying slot went begging and Di Resta was very disappointed.
It was a good day for Caterham and Heikki Kovalainen, who qualified ahead of both Toro Rosso cars, with Jean Eric Vergne having dropped out of qualifying at the first stage for the fifth time in seven races. It was the second time this season, after Bahrain, where Kovalainen made it into Q2.
Timo Glock was forced to miss the session due to a stomach bug and will take a view tomorrow on whether to start the race from the back of the grid.
Additional reporting: Matt Meadows
EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX, Valencia, Qualifying
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m38.086s
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m38.410s + 0.324
3. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m38.475s + 0.389
4. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m38.505s + 0.419
5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m38.513s + 0.427
6. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m38.623s + 0.537
7. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m38.741s + 0.655
8. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1m38.752s + 0.666
9. Jenson Button McLaren 1m38.801s + 0.715
10. Paul di Resta Force India 1m38.992s + 0.906
11. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m38.707s + 0.218
12. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m38.770s + 0.281
13. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m38.780s + 0.291
14. Bruno Senna Williams 1m39.207s + 0.718
15. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m39.358s + 0.869
16. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1m40.295s + 1.806
17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m40.358s + 1.869
18. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m40.203s + 1.378
19. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m40.395s + 1.570
20. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1m40.457s + 1.632
21. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1m42.171s + 3.346
22. Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1m42.527s + 3.702
23. Charles Pic Marussia 1m42.675s + 3.850
Best Tweets from the Day
#MyCaterhamF1 A significant day in the life of our team as we beat both Toro Rossos on merit.
# InsideFerrari EUR – Up hill struggle in qualifying for the two F2012
#Enginesman “Suspect that Seb is, just, the fastest #F1 driver at the moment. Don’t think he’ll win tomorrow though. My money’s on Grosjean or Raikkonen.”
#dchalmersf1 So apparently Tost rates Vergne very highly. That sounds like the dreaded vote of confidence you get from football chairmen.”
For more team and fan tweets as well as all the latest content from Valencia click HERE