2013 U.S. GP: Sebastian Vettel pips Mark Webber as Red Bull dominate qualifying
Fifth 2013 Red Bull lockout, but conditions throw curveball behind
By James Galloway. Last Updated: 18/11/13 4:34pm
Sebastian Vettel summoned all of his famous single-lap prowess to deny team-mate Mark Webber a third pole in the last four races at the climax of a fascinating U.S. GP qualifying hour.
The runaway World Champion had unusually been upstaged by his retiring team-mate on Saturdays in both Japan and Abu Dhabi and that recent trend seemed set to repeat itself in Austin as Webber lapped faster in the first Q3 runs and then lowered the bar still further next time round.
Behind on the road, it seemed Vettel, F1's qualifying master, was struggling to find an answer as he lapped slower than the sister RB9 through the first two sectors of his own final lap. However, the picture changed dramatically through the final corners as Vettel produced a banzai final sector to stop the clocks with a 1:36.338 lap and pip Webber by a tenth of a second for his eighth pole of 2013.
Whatever the order, the reality for the rest was that Red Bull locked out the front row for the fifth time in 2013.
Behind F1's dominant package, an afternoon change in track conditions at the Circuit of the Americas threw a sudden curve ball into proceedings. For some, like the unerringly impressive Nico Hulkenberg, who surged to fourth on the grid, and Williams rookie Valtteri Bottas, who starred in Q1 and Q2 before securing a still highly respectable ninth, the combination of gustier winds and an increase in track temperatures allowed unlikely chances to shine.
However, for three Q3 regulars the opposite proved correct as Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and, most surprisingly of all, Nico Rosberg all dropped out in Q2.
Romain Grosjean ultimately proved the best of the rest to take third for Lotus, albeit a massive eight tenths slower than Vettel, with Sauber's Hulkenberg beating Lewis Hamilton (fifth) and Fernando Alonso (sixth) to the second row.
And on a day when Constructors' Championship rivals Mercedes and Ferrari failed to get two cars into the top ten, Lotus's decision to bring Heikki Kovalainen off the substitutes bench was vindicated as the Finn secured a fine eighth place. Indeed, after spending the last three years with backmarkers Caterham, it represented his best qualifying result since the 2009 Singapore GP.
The second Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez initially rounded out the top ten - but the Mexican was later handed a 10-place grid penalty for impeding Pastor Maldonado early in Q1.
Rosberg's early demise was undoubtedly the major surprise, especially as he has held the upper hand over Hamilton at Mercedes in recent races. However, as confirmed by Ross Brawn from the pitwall during Sky Sports F1's live qualifying coverage, the German was sent off course by the change in wind levels.
"He is very unhappy with the car. I think the balance has deteriorated quite badly in these conditions, it was a real struggle out there for him," Brawn said.
Rosberg, down in 14th, set a slower time than Button but will start ahead of the McLaren courtesy of the Briton's three-place grid penalty, which drops him down to 16th behind also Massa, who has struggled all weekend, and Jean-Eric Vergne.
But arguably no one is enduring a more miserable - or turbulent - Austin weekend than outgoing Williams driver Pastor Maldonado. After lapping 1.5s slower than the flying Bottas to consign himself to another depressing Q1 exit, the Venezuelan extraordinarily appeared to insinuate that the Grove team had sabotaged his car.
"It was quite a hard beginning to the weekend yesterday, then this morning and then in qualifying even worse," he told Sky Sports F1.
"I think in my car someone is playing with the pressure and the temperatures, it is not that clear, but one more race to go so great!"