Time is running out to catch Sebastian Vettel

Closest rivals Alonso and Hamilton struggle in qualifying for today's Singapore Grand Prix

Singapore

Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton need a win today's Singapore Grand Prix to keep their fading title hopes alive against the onslaught of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, but yesterday both came up short.

While Vettel notched up the 41st pole of his career Alonso could manage only seventh on the grid even though he has probably geneated more ink than Vettel this weekend after all the speculation about whether he would leave Ferrari for McLaren

Hamilton was fastest in the first qualifying session, but could only manage fifth on the grid and, as he did after qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix two weeks ago, again complained about his Mercedes.

"I just didn't have a great feeling in the car and ultimately I wasn't fast enough," he admitted. "Clearly the car was quicker than what I was able to get out of it tonight so, of course, it's frustrating not to have qualified closer to the front. But that's life.

"I'll be pushing as hard as I can tomorrow. Our target will be to get on the podium, that would be amazing."

Nico Rosberg seemed in charge in the second qualifying session. But in a bit of gamesmanship designed to harvest tyres for a long and tough race, Red Bull didn't send their drivers until four minutes from the end. Then Vettel went a second quicker. In the final session Vettel again dominated, so much that he elected not to do a second run. But then he stood biting his fingernails as improving track conditions ramped up the grip.

"It was weird standing in the garage with two minutes to go, knowing there is nothing you can do," Vettel admitted. "I watched the sector times very closely: Mark started purple in sector one [meaning he'd set the fastest time], then Nico went purple in sector two, Romain [Grosjean] too, but fortunately my third-sector time was good enough to keep me ahead. In the end we were okay, but it was close."

But not, perhaps, as close as it seemed given the track improvement. Rosberg got within a 0.1sec with Grosjean on his tail, but the pair had to settle for second and third on the grid. Red Bull's race pace has been fantastic all weekend and the odds favour a third consecutive win for Vettel.

The odds say there will be at least one safety car intervention in the race, but as Red Bull march confidently forwards, everyone else is looking for straws to clutch.

Meanwhile, the paddock is still chewing over the story surrounding Alonso. First there was talk about how he might fare against Kimi Raikkonen who will make a prodigal return to Ferrari next year. Then on Friday that was all swept aside by a frenzy of speculation that the Spaniard might return to McLaren alongside Jenson Button. You'll recall that his single season there in 2007 proved one of McLaren's most expensive as, at the height of an acrimonious relationship with superfast rookie Lewis Hamilton, the team were fined $100m (£62m) by the governing body FIA for wrongly being in possession of intellectual property belonging to Ferrari.

Alonso proved psychologically weak against Hamilton, who gave him a good hiding several times despite his inexperience, and many expect him to be vulnerable when he's paired with the Ice Man. That prompted suggestions that after fruitless talks with Red Bull in Hungary and a recent visit to Lotus, his management were listening to proposals that a return to McLaren could be an option.

You never say never in Formula One, as Raikkonen's return to Ferrari illustrates. So when McLaren's what-you-see-is-what-you-get team principal Martin Whitmarsh admitted quite openly that he would be interested in signing the Spaniard, past episodes notwithstanding, everyone went crazy.

Alonso quickly distanced himself. "I repeat it more or less every weekend and I keep repeating it, I love Ferrari and I will stay until the end," he insisted, which means until the end of 2016. But there are suggestions that McLaren, and more particularly Honda, who will be their engine partner from 2015 onwards, might be interested in replacing Sergio Perez with Alonso in 2015 to drive alongside Jenson Button, who is close to signing a new deal there.

Whitmarsh didn't help damp down the speculation when he added: "I expect next year our driver line-up to stay the same, but we are open to anything. We'll see."

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