Downforce such a downer for Lewis

Red Bulls flying again so McLaren must upset odds at today's first Korea GP to save their season

That Red Bull, said Lewis Hamilton, respect stamped all over his face and embedded in his voice, "has so much downforce." And that said it all about qualifying for today's Korean Grand Prix, as Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber wrapped up the front row after vaulting past Fernando Alonsoin the session's dying moments.

It was a gripping session, payback for Chung Yong-Cho's commitment to create the Korean International Circuit and get it completed against a weather-shortened deadline after the outside world had predicted he and his crew would never make it.

It was clear after yesterday's final practice session that things were going to be tight as the top five teams were covered by just 0.275sec. Robert Kubica and Renault set the fastest time, just clear of Hamilton's McLaren, Alonso's Ferrari and Webber's Red Bull. Nico Rosberg was close behind for the hitherto disappointing Mercedes team.

When the final runs started in the afternoon, Alonso held the upper hand with a time of 1m 35.766sec, while the first lap of Webber's final run came up short at 1:35.973. But in the dying seconds came Vettel, still buzzing after his victory in Japan, with 1:35.585. And right behind him after getting a second lap out of his tyres was Webber on 1:35.659. The sole consolation for Alonso, now third, was that Hamilton's heroic 1:36.062 in a McLaren that loved the circuit's kilometre-long straight but hated its numerous bumps, failed to dislodge him. Alonso starts, like Vettel, on the clean side of the road in a race in which the dirt waits for anyone who wanders off line.

"I had very few laps this morning," beamed Vettel, who surely senses his title hopes coming into very sharp focus. "We tried to save the car then, so now I had to take whatever I could out of it. I was a bit cautious in the middle sector, so I speeded up in the last and it worked."

Webber looked relaxed but was snappy enough to respond when asked if he was disappointed not to have pole: "No, I'm really happy to be second. What do you think?" Having lost pole to Vettel a fortnight ago in Japan, and seen the minuscule difference between them translate into a seven-point scoring loss, he really wanted the top slot.

"I wasn't happy on the first timed lap," said the Australian. "I was more comfortable and more stable on the second and it was very, very close with Seb. Second on the grid is betterthan further back. It would have been nice to get pole but it was OK, it went to plan."

Alonso was philosophical, because he's seen this happen a lot this season. "Normally qualifying is not our strongest point," he said. "Here we are quite close to the Red Bull, so it will be good for the race."

At times, Hamilton admitted, it was tough to drive one-handed while operating the F-duct that stalls airflow over the rear wing and thus boosts top speed by reducing drag.

"We were very quick in practice, so I don't know where the Red Bulls found an extra half a second in Q3," he said. "Still, it's important to remember that we're still in the fight: we make good starts, and there are some long straights here, which should suit us. We're competitive – the car is the best it's ever been and our long runs are strong. We just need to do the best we can with what we have – we can't ask any more of the guys back at the factory, or the guys here, and I don't think I could have asked for any more from me."

His team-mate, Jenson Button, struggled to get his tyres up to optimum temperature and, after qualifying seventh, admitted: "I didn't have enough grip and couldn't find enough pace."

McLaren may be looking at the end of their world championship quest, yet there remains a sneaky suspicion that this inaugural race at an exciting new venue might just prove to be one of those that throws up an unusual result. After all the doubts in the build-up, that would be a neat reward for a lot of faith, hope, and commitment, not to mention an investment in excess of $100m.

The grid

1. Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1min 35.585secs, 2. Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:35.659, 3. Fernando Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:35.766, 4. Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:36.062, 5. Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:36.535, 6. Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:36.571, 7. Jenson Button (GB) McLaren 1:36.731, 8. Robert Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:36.824, 9. Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:36.950, 10. Rubens Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:36.998, 11. Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 1:37.620, 12. Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 1:37.643, 13. Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:37.715, 14. Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:37.783, 15. Jaime Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:37.853, 16. Sébastien Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:38.594, 17. Vitantonio Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:38.955, 18. Jarno Trulli (It) Lotus F1 1:40.521, 19. Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing 1:40.748, 20. Vitaly Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:37.799 *, 21. Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 1:41.768, 22. Lucas di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing 1:42.325, 23. Sakon Yamamoto (Japan) HRT-F1 1:42.444, 24. Bruno Senna (Br) HRT-F1 1:43.283

* Vitaly Petrov starts from 20th following a penalty