Suzuka specialist Vettel on pole
World Champion heads Webber as Red Bull boss qualifying for Japanese GP; Below-par Hamilton to start behind Button despite Jenson's grid penalty; Result ratified following stewards' enquiry
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 06/10/12 11:38am
He's done it again. Suzuka specialist Sebastian Vettel has claimed his fourth successive pole position for the Japanese GP, heading a dominant Red Bull front-row lockout to put the jitters into Fernando Alonso's title lead.
While the Spaniard's struggle to challenge the frontrunners in qualifying had been expected, the Ferrari driver will only start Sunday's race from sixth on the grid after being forced to abandon his final run after a leery spin for Kimi Raikkonen brought out the yellow flags.
"We were very, very unlucky, the yellow flags came at the worst possible moment," bemoaned the Championship leader. "We were caught out and lost fourth place - and, with Button's penalty, maybe position three. Hopefully we will have more luck on Sunday."
Another title contender, Lewis Hamilton, was also among those caught out by Raikkonen's ill-timed mistake - an all-too regular occurrence for the Finn on Saturday afternoons this year - as the session collapsed to a rather underwhelming finish.
Kamui Kobayashi set the fourth fastest time during those closing moments but television replays seemed to suggest that the Sauber driver had ignored the waved yellow flags as he passed Raikkonen's car at Spoon Curve.
Although a driver cannot set his best sector time when the yellow flags are waved, Kobayashi later reckoned he had slowed by not using his DRS and no complaint was made against a driver who is urgently in need of a favourable result after being usurped throughout the campaign by team-mate Sergio Perez.
Hamilton, who Perez will replace next season at McLaren, will line-up in ninth, still behind Jenson Button even though his current team-mate has carried the painful handicap of a five-place grid penalty into the weekend following an unscheduled gearbox change. Perhaps the fuss about his future has finally had an adverse effect on Hamilton because the Mercedes-bound driver has been below-par all weekend and judged Saturday afternoon's outing to be his "most diappointing session of the season".
"A real tough day, I was nowhere," Lewis concluded miserably after a rather lacklustre performance that was undermined by a series of set-up u-turns that only succeeded in replacing excessive understeer with unhelpful oversteer. The 2008 World Champion faces an uphill challenge in Sunday's race if he is to put his faltering title bid back on track.
Button at least had the consolation of a job well done, albeit one which never threatened Red Bull's front-row monopoly. "I couldn't find anymore," Jenson reflected sombrely in the post-session press conference as he sat alongside Vettel. "The Red Bulls were just too quick." They certainly were, though McLaren are unlikely to have minded that it was Button, rather than the Mercedes-bound Hamilton, who led their fight.
So long as he can avoid confrontation with team-mate Mark Webber through the first corners, Vettel, building on the momentum of his victory at Singapore, is poised to once again dominate from the familiar position of frontrunner.
"We didn't know what to expect we came here but the balance was perfect and I have a good feeling," said Vettel. "Let's just hope it continues on Sunday."
As 2012 enters its decisive period, Red Bull's 2011 superiority has seemingly made an ominious reappearance and already Sunday's race looks to be a question of whether Alonso can limit the damage in a car which suddenly seems to have been reduced to a second slower than his rival's.
"Red Bull are out front and everyone else is on the backfoot," observed Sky Sports F1 pundit Martin Brundle. "They could run and hide."
At this time of year, however, there is no hiding place for those drivers struggling to hang on to their seats for next season and Felipe Massa was among those enduring yet another day to forget.
Having performed well throughout the practice sessions, the Brazilian apparently cracked under the pressure as he chased a place in the top-ten shoot-out and made a hash of his flying lap. The result was F1's equivalent of an early bath and more reputational damage. With Nico Hulkenberg the new favourite to take his place at Ferrari, Massa's future is expected to be resolved in the next two weeks, making his setback particularly inopportune.
Two other 2013 doubtfuls, Jean-Eric Vergne and Bruno Senna, also had cause for regret, though the Brazilian was the blameless victim in an unimpressive incident at the culmination of Q1 which saw the Toro Rosso driver hinder the Williams as it approached the final chicane and retrospectively handed a three-place grid penalty.
It was a messy start to a messy session that was only belatedly tidied up three hours after its finish when the Suzuka stewards reprimanded Vettel for a very slight infringement when he held up Alonso during Q3 and ruled that the World Champion could still start from pole position.
Will anyone be able to stop him from there?