Hamilton cast as wild card with nothing to lose

If Thursday's press conference generated anodyne behaviour from the four world championship contenders, the panacea had worn off by the end of one hell of a gripping qualifying session.

Sebastian Vettel was wearing his mischievous schoolboy grin after taking his 10th pole position of the season. Lewis Hamilton looked super cool after another fabulous display had put his McLaren in second place. Fernando Alonso, snatching fat from the fire with third on his last lap, was certainly not going to indulge in anything as demonstrative as a smile, but you could tell he was pretty stoked.

Spot the missing name? Correct. Mark Webber was already through with the TV and radio interviews, having spoken only briefly with Radio Five Live before exiting the arena with arms aloft in a clear "Sorry, that's enough, folks" gesture that was even more indicative of his despair in qualifying only fifth than his drawn expression.

The first two sessions of qualifying, under the lights of the fabulous Yas Marina circuit, had been brutal nip-and-tuck affairs. Alonso topped the times in the first, from interloperNico Rosberg, Vettel, Hamilton and Webber. In the second, Vettel was fastest from Button, Rosberg and Webber. The Red Bulls were again about three-tenths apart, butWebber was only 0.60s off Button.

But then it all went catastrophicallywrong in the third session, when it really mattered.

"I'm not rapped to be fifth on the grid, it's disappointing," Webber said, and the pain ran through his voice. Here he was in qualifying for the 19th and final round struggling to generate grip in the second sector. Grip, in a Red Bull? It's as plentiful as taurene in Dietrich Mateschitz's famed energy drinks. But not this day.

"There's still a long way to go tomorrow," he dredged up, "and the fat lady hasn't sung yet. We need to be there at the end of tomorrow's race and a lot can still happen; I haven't helped things today, but the championship's not decided today. I didn't seem to have the grip the other guys had and I need to have a look where I was losing time. We're still in the hunt and that's the main thing."

Vettel, meanwhile, was ecstatic. "It was a great lap and I'm proud of it. It was a very tight qualifying session andit's even more thrilling when you know there's tension going into it and you know 'this is it'. We only did one run in Q3, so only one chance. The car was fantastic today."

Like Hamilton, he has less to lose than Webber or Alonso. The 2008 champion was the most relaxed of them all, smiling at the prospect of driving a competitive McLaren.

"I'm absolutely delighted," he beamed. "This is my best qualifying performance since Spa, and I pushed as hard as I could and got everything and more out of the car. To be just three-hundredths off the fastest Red Bull is extremely good news for the team. We've worked incredibly hard all year.

"I don't have to worry about who's around me; they all have to worry about who's around them. I've got nothing to lose and everything to gain. I don't have to be cautious at all..." And he added: "Perhaps they need to think about that."

Both McLaren drivers are potential spoilers, a fact not lost on Señor Alonso, who can scent another championship. Second place will do it for him, or third if Webber is behind. "We need to avoid mistakes tomorrow, when we have the race and score the points," he said. "We won't win the championship in Corner One. At the moment we are very, very strong, but anything can happen."

Will it really all be so straightforward? Or will an outstanding season have one final twist to offer?

Qualifying grid

1 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) RedBull-Renault; 2 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren; 3 Fernando Alonso (Sp) Ferrari; 4 Jenson Button (GB) McLaren; 5 Mark Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault; 6 Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari; 7 Rubens Barrichello (Br) Williams-Cosworth; 8 Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes; 9 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes; 10 Vitaly Petrov (Rus) Renault; 11 Robert Kubica (Pol) Renault; 12 Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber-Ferrari; 13 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes; 14 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber-Ferrari; 15 Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth; 16 Vitantonio Liuzzi (It) Force India-Mercedes; 17 Jaime Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari; 18 Sebastien Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari; 19 Jarno Trulli (It) Lotus-Cosworth; 20 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus-Cosworth; 21 Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth; 22 Lucas Di Grassi (Br) Virgin-Cosworth; 23 Bruno Senna (Br) HRT-Cosworth; 24 Christian Klien (Aut) HRT-Cosworth.

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