Vettel navigates new map to another pole
German defies change in engine rules to assert his superiority with Hamilton forced into third
Oh dear! Just when their rivals hoped that Red Bull's dominant RB7 might have been emasculated by new rules regarding engine mapping, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber stamped their authority on qualifying yet again to keep McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault behind them.
After their first runs in the crucial Q3 session which decides the top 10 on the grid, Lewis Hamilton raised hopes at McLaren with the second fastest time, but he did not improve on a subsequent run and Webber did.
Vettel had already set the pace, of course, needing only one hot lap to earn his seventh pole position of the season with a lap of 1min 36.975sec, to Hamilton's 1:37.380. Then Webber came riding out of the sunset with 1:37.163, and the game was over.
"There was a lot of talk beforehand," Vettel said with his schoolboyish smirk in reference to the new rule that teams must run the same engine map in the race as in qualifying. "Everyone will lose out something, and people expected us to lose out more, and that's where I disagreed. I didn't think that we would. So it's very good for us to be on the front row. It's always tough here because there are so many corners – 25 – and to get every single one right is very difficult. To get the perfect lap is very tough but I was happy with mine."
So was Webber, who came back from not being at all happy with his car in the first session and then a brake imbalance problem after his first run in the third. "We changed what we could in quallie, thank God, because after Q1 I was worried," he admitted.
"We were still a bit out of bed at the start of Q3, with a bit of a brake balance issue, but the boys did a good job recovering me. The last corner in particular here is very challenging, and it's easy to run out of talent in it, but I was very lucky there on my best lap, got out of there nicely and it helped get me on the front row. It wasn't easy but that was a pretty good lap and it was nice to go quicker. A great day for the team on the back of all the talk."
Hamilton might have been pushed off the front row, but he still believes that McLaren can get the job done this afternoon.
"I'm excited to be in the fight; we can win from this position," he said. "Of course, we'll need a bit of luck with the strategy and the pitstops, but our guys are on great form. You've got to be fortunate and maximise absolutely everything to get ahead of the Red Bulls – and, hopefully, that can happen tomorrow.
"I tried to push a little harder on my final lap, but it's a very fine line between being too greedy and getting it just right. And, unfortunately, I locked up into Turn One and that's where I lost time and bailed out.
"The team did a great job as always. The guys back at the factory have been working as hard as ever to bring updates to the track. They're pushed to the limit, but they are delivering, so I'm very thankful for everything they're doing. Our race pace has been pretty good over the past three races and we should be fast tomorrow too."
Valencia is a tough little track, however, as Vettel explained. "It's a street circuit but has quite long straights," he said, "so it's going to be important to have enough of a gap to avoid getting passed when other drivers use their DRS rear wing. We'll see, but at the moment it's not clear how many stops we'll have and how efficient the overtaking will be, but it's a long race."
Local hero Fernando Alonso, like Hamilton, failed to improve on his first effort, so 1:37.454 left him fourth as his Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa jumped Jenson Button for fifth, improving to 1:37.535 on his second run. The Englishman also improved, fractionally, from 1:37.675 to 1:37.645, but it was not enough to keep him ahead of the Brazilian.
"Sixth position is a bit frustrating because the car felt pretty good in Q2," the hero of the Canadian GP confessed, "and I didn't have to push it too much. So I don't know why that changed for Q3. I had quite a bit of oversteer and I couldn't get enough rear grip or traction, particularly in the first two sectors. And that was something I wasn't expecting. Maybe in this heat, the balance didn't work quite as well as it did this morning due to the higher track temperatures."
1. S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1min 36.975sec, 2. M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:37.163, 3. L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:37.380, 4. F Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 1:37.454, 5. F Massa (Bra) Ferrari 1:37.535, 6. J Button (GB) McLaren 1:37.645, 7. N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:38.231, 8. M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:38.240, 9. N Heidfeld (Ger) Renault No Time, 10. A Sutil (Ger) Force India No Time, 11. V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:39.068, 12. P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:39.422, 13. R Barrichello (Bra) Williams 1:39.489, 14. K Kobayashi (Jpn) Sauber-Ferrari 1:39.525, 15. P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:39.645, 16. S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:39.657, 17. S Buemi (Swi) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:39.711, 18. J Alguersuari (Spa) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:40.232, 19. H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 1:41.664, 20. J Trulli (Ita) Lotus F1 1:42.234, 21. T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing 1:42.553, 22. V Liuzzi (Ita) HRT-F1 1:43.584, 23. J D'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin Racing 1:43.735, 24. N Karthikeyan (Ind) HRT-F1 1:44.363
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