Malaysian GP qualifying: Pole for Sebastian Vettel as Massa beats Alonso - again
Lewis Hamilton fourth as frustrated Webber is caught out
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 23/03/13 3:58pm
Come rain or shine, there's just no stopping Sebastian Vettel over a single lap in qualifying.
For the second time in a week, the World Champion will start a race with a clear road in front of him after claiming pole position for the Malaysian GP at Sepang. But whereas it was sheer, unbeatable naked pace that earned the record-breaking German top spot in Melbourne, this week's number one owed plenty to cunning and an inspired decision to pit for fresh intermediate tyres as the Sepang track dried out after a sudden downpour mid-way through the qualifying hour.
While team-mate Mark Webber floundered - "unbelievable" was the Australian's terse one-word response to being relegated to a modest fifth place - after misjudging the amount of time left at the end of the session in which to take a final shot at pole, Vettel's clean rubber found sufficient grip to humble the opposition with almost a second to spare.
"Obviously with the circuit drying it was clear it was better to change tyres and we confirmed that pretty early. So I think we did the right thing," the polesitter declared with unintended understatement.
"It's very tricky because you don't know if there's more rain coming or not, but we took the decision, and I'm a bit surprised. I had a decent lap and was very happy."
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But the battle at Red Bull won't be the internal strife dominating talk in the paddock on Saturday night. Topic of choice will surely be the contest at Ferrari following the fourth successive defeat of Fernando Alonso by an inspired Felipe Massa as the revitalised - 'reborn' would be another, perhaps more appropriate description - Brazilian claimed his first frontrow slot since 2010.
For Fernando, who will start Sunday's grand prix just behind Vettel, Felipe's recovery is beginning to assume ominous and troubling dimensions. Nobody saw it coming but Massa is slowing but surely growing into a sizeable obstacle in the Spaniard's bid to claim a third World Championship.
"It was a good qualifying for us," said Felipe. "We took the right decision to stop for new tyres."
Given Ferrari's propensity to make fast starts off the line, Vettel might yet also live to regret Webber's misjudgement when a sea of red lines up around his lonely RB9 on Sunday. Expect fireworks into the first corner.
Whether Lewis Hamilton is part of that battle remains to be seen. As the track continued to dry out, the new Mercedes recruit tumbled from provisional pole to fourth in the final minute of the session, paying a steep price for staying out instead of pitting for new Pirellis.
"That's just the way it is," a philosophical Hamilton accepted. "Putting new tyres on was the best way to go but our strategy was to stay out. We thought it would work out for us but it didn't."
Nico Rosberg echoed Hamilton's frustration but his irritation was compounded by a second successive failure to carry a strong showing in Q2 through to the decisive final stage.
In both Australia and Malaysia, Rosberg has appeared to have the beating of Hamilton in qualifying - and indeed perhaps the entire field - only to fall a long way short when it ultimately counted. "We messed up," Rosberg ruefully reflected. "I was the fastest man out there until the rain came."
That contention is arguable given Red Bull's refusal to show their hand was such that they barely squeaked through Q1 after deploying both Vettel and Webber on used tyres to nerve-jangling effect.
The day's disappointment, meanwhile, was a lacklustre performance from Lotus with Kimi Raikkonen's final flying lap in the shoot-out riddled with errors, a poor day later compounded when the Melbourne winner was demoted three places on the grid to tenth for impeding Rosberg.
Raikkonen will now share the fifth row with team-mate Romain Grosjean who had earlier been caught out when the unexpected rain shower fell during Q2. The Frenchman's E21 is not carrying all the updates which Raikkonen's car has been bolstered with this weekend.
As for McLaren, depicted as a team in crisis in banners headlines across the backpages on Saturday morning, the relief at both of their cars progressing into the top ten was tempered by the disappointment they couldn't make further inroads in conditions which, judging by Friday's running when Jenson Button was the quickest driver as the field trundled around on the intermediates, ought to have suited them perfectly.
Alas, in a bid to improve their dry-running pace during Saturday morning's Practice Three hour, the team had effectively dialled out that advantage from their car and both Button nor team-mate Sergio Perez faded back into obscurity as battle raged at the front.
Sport, as Martin Whitmarsh's beleaguered team are learning in impressively stoic fashion, can be a cruel business. Sometimes, you just can't win - especially when you're on a losing streak.