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Motor Racing

Vettel on track to clinch title as fuel error slows Hamilton

Champion speeds to pole but Englishman can only watch forlornly after mechanic drains tank by mistake

Two Red Bulls on the front row is the ultimate nightmare for Lewis Hamilton, but what made it worse yesterday in Singapore was that he was ahead of one of them after his first run, only to have to sit in the garage and watch as he was pushed down to fourth.

The final session for F1's sole night race began with a minor territorial dispute between Hamilton and Ferrari's Felipe Massa on their out laps, but the Englishman kept going to beat his team-mate, Jenson Button, and Red Bull's Mark Webber for fastest time with a lap in 1min 44.809sec compared to their respective bests of 1:44.928 and 1:45.378. But then the unstoppable Sebastian Vettel once again deposed him by the half-second advantage he had enjoyed in the first and second qualifying sessions, and 1:44.381 would prove enough to earn him his 11th pole position of the year.

Hamilton's chances of staying on the front row were damned when he was unable to make a second run due to a fuelling problem. He had to sit and fret as Webber moved to second with 1:44.732 and then Button beat his time by a fraction with 1:44.804. He was lucky that last year's winner Fernando Alonso only just failed to take fourth, with 1:44.874.

Vettel can clinch his second consecutive world championship this weekend, if he wins with Alonso fourth or worse, because whatever happens thereafter in the remaining five races – even if Vettel retires and Alonso wins them all – the Spaniard can only tie him for points and would lose out because the German would have nine wins to his six. But as usual, Vettel refused to consider such things until they have happened. Instead, he painted a graphic portrait of the difficulties of qualifying on such a tight and demanding circuit.

"This is an exceptional track for us," he said, "but you either like or hate it. The secret is it's a bit of both. Twenty three corners are incredible compared to some; in the last race, at Monza, there were only 11, so it's double. It's a long lap, the speed is fairly low as you'd expect on a street circuit, so it's stop and go but still challenging to get it all together. It's give and take; you try to take a bit out of the car then sacrifice it at the next corner, there's a lot of thinking going on, and you really have to concentrate to mesh it corner to corner, so the satisfaction here is big when it's been a good lap. You give yourself grief if it isn't!"

Webber agreed. "Overnight we made a pretty good step. It's not a venue I'd pick to come to every week, but this was one of my best Saturday sessions here. I'm a few tenths off Seb, in the end he did a great job for pole, but my lap was not bad at all. It's so easy to screw the lap up here and such a long way to chat to yourself if you do before you can start another."

Button looked relieved to be third, after a troubled weekend. "We made a lot of changes overnight and a lot of improvements, but it's a little difficult to keep the tyres alive over a whole lap. I got a bit excited on my last lap and pushed too hard in the first sector, so the tyres were gone by the last one. But I'm quite pleased with third. The performance of cars really shows up here, and the gaps are massive between teams. The more downforce you have, the less you slide..."

And who has the most downforce? Full marks whoever said Red Bull.

Hamilton, meanwhile, was understandably glum. His fuelling problem was of human origin. The man working the rig was pumping fuel out when he thought he was pumping it in, and by the time the error was identified, there was no longer time to get it corrected and Hamilton back on track.

It's a very long race, however, likelyto go to the whole two hours, and tyre management will be crucial. Red Bull aren't yet home and dry, with McLaren hopeful that they've resolved their tyre issues from Friday and Alonso starting fifth in a Ferrari that's kind to its rubber, so the result may not be the foregone conclusion that it seemed after qualifying.

Today's grid

1. Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1min 44.381sec; 2. Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:44.732; 3. Jenson Button (GB) McLaren 1:44.804; 4. Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:44.809; 5. Fernando Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:44.874; 6. Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:45.800; 7. Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:46.013; 8. Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes; 9. Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes; 10. Paul Di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes; 11. Sergio Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:47.616; 12. Rubens Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:48.082; 13. Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:48.270; 14. Sebastien Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso 1:48.634; 15. Bruno Senna (Br) Renault 1:48.662; 16. Jaime Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso 1:49.862; 17. Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari; 18. Vitali Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:49.835; 19. Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus-Renault 1:50.948; 20. Jarno Trulli (It) Lotus-Renault 1:51.012; 21. Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth 1:52.154; 22. Jerome d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin-Cosworth 1:52.363; 23. Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) HRT-Cosworth 1:52.404; 24. Vitantonio Liuzzi (It) HRT-Cosworth 1:52.810.