Vettel nudges Alonso aside by narrowest of margins

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German grabs pole by two-thousandths of second but Spaniard and Ferrari still get a much-needed boost.

How distant the Bahrain Grand Prix seems, with its easy victory for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, and the post-race clamour for silly synthetic measures to liven up the racing.

The intervening races, with up to five teams and seven or eight drivers fighting for the top positions, have given us one of the most gripping seasons in Formula One history. Thankfully wise heads prevailed, and since it turned out that it wasn't broken, nobody tried to fix it.

Yesterday, for the first time since that season-opening race, it was Red Bull versus Ferrari in one of the most exciting qualifying sessions of the year. By the end of it, a paltry two- thousandths of a second separated the two fastest runners, Sebastian Vettel edging out Fernando Alonso.

Ferrari came here seething after three races in which they perceived themselves to have been hard done by; whether they were depends on what colours you wear on your sleeve. But the fact remained that they needed a victory before the summer break starts after next weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix. This weekend, they might get one.

After rain had directly or indirectly affected all three practice sessions, qualifying kicked off with a bang and an eight-minute delay after Tonio Liuzzi spun his Force India exiting the final corner on his first quick lap of Q1, smacking it hard enough into the pit wall to shed wheels. Timo Glock was lucky one did not strike his Virgin.

As soon as the mess was cleared up, Alonso stamped his authority, and as the Spaniard wheeled his Ferrari round fastest in both Q1 and Q2, Red Bull were keenly aware that they had a fight on their hands. And this time it wasn't between their two drivers. Where Red Bull's homeboy Vettel lapped in 1min 15.152sec in Q1, Alonso managed 1:14.808. In Q2 their respective times were 1:14.333 and 1:14.081. "We have seen often that they can give a little more in Q3," Alonso said of Red Bull. But even he could not have foreseen how close the gap would be.

On their first runs then he retained the upper hand, with 1:13.927 to Vettel's 1:13.961. The German then started ahead of the Ferrari on the road on their final runs. This time the local hero stopped the clock in 1:13.791. "It's not a nice feeling when you set the fastest time but you know that another guy is also on a fast lap and you have to wait and see," Vettel said, with the old smile that has been less bright of late. "You think, 'Please, please, please let me stay on top! It was such a good, exciting session."

Indeed it was, because Alonso flung the Ferrari at the finish line and recorded 1:13.793. He had lost out by the most slender of margins, but the way things have been for the Scuderia of late, that counted as one hell of a victory. Alonso even smiled.

"No," he said, "I am not at all disappointed not to be on pole. We didn't really expect to keep it. We have to be happy because we are on the first row for the first time this season. This is a step forward for us, we have been competitive all weekend, and I am very confident and happy with the car. We've had a perfect Saturday and we lost pole by a very small margin, but this is not important. You get the points [today], not on Saturday."

When Alonso had sought to play down a fast Friday, Red Bull had spoken quietly about the speed of the red cars, and here it was for all to see. Vettel knows he has a race on his hands.

"We are really strong but the Ferraris are very competitive here and we knew it would be a difficult session," Vettel conceded. "Two- thousandths of a second is not really the margin we are looking for."

He was, he added, extremely happy with his car even if his best lap was not 100 per cent perfect. "In the end it was just enough to stay ahead. I'm extremely happy to be on pole for the first time at home. But it's going to be a tough fight against the red cars."

Oh yes, Bahrain certainly seems a lifetime away.

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