Webber steals pole from Vettel
Red Bulls claim front-row positions for Sunday's race
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 13/10/12 11:31am
There's just no stopping Red Bull at present - but, confounding all the pre-qualifying expectation, it is Mark Webber and not Sebastian Vettel who will start the Korean GP from pole position after the Australian produced the lap of his year to defeat his Red Bull team-mate in the final stages of Q3.
The victor of Suzuka and Singapore had appeared peerless all weekend prior to Webber's unforeseen late charge and faces the unexpected anxiety of starting on the dirty side of the grid on what is arguably the dirtiest track in F1.
Let battle commence. With championship leader Fernando Alonso starting alongside Lewis Hamilton and directly behind Vettel, the stage is set for a start which promises to be worth getting out of bed for - and, in all likelihood, will represent the best chance Alonso and Hamilton have of stopping a Red Bull team which has rediscovered its 2011 dominance.
The World Champions have entered the final stretch of the season with a fearsome sprint, claiming front-row lock-outs on successive weekends, propelled by a car which has been seemingly been decisively upgraded into the fastest in the field.
"We are still missing a little bit of pace, compared especially to Red Bull who were again very dominant," conceded Alonso. "We must improve our car and I expect to see some updates coming, right from the next race in India."
The rapid usefulness of the RB8's recently-introduced Double DRS device, which has already made the team's qualifying struggles in Monza a distant memory, will be less pronounced in race conditions, but Alonso will once again start Sunday's race faced with a steep challenge after losing a pair of places to Webber and the previously-peripheral Hamilton at the dramatic culmination of Q3.
Held up to fractional but critical effect on his final run by Felipe Massa, Vettel berated his race engineer for failing to alert him to the Ferrari's proximity, but once the dust has settled - something which doesn't happen very often at a circuit which is mothballed for 360 days of the year - then the reigning World Champion will surely find cause for considerable encouragement. Given the car advantage he now holds over Alonso, it would be a major surprise if he doesn't leave Korea on Sunday night without the lead of the championship.
"It was a super lap by Mark, he deserved pole," confirmed team boss Christian Horner. "Unfortunately, Sebastian didn't put together his sectors on his final run.
"Both of our drivers will be free to race. Their only target is to beat Fernando."
The disappointment of the session was the luckless demise of Jenson Button at the messy close of Q2 with the McLaren driver undone by an engine failure for Daniel Ricciardo. Slowing down under yellow flags is a black art and the murky reality was that Button simply lifted off too much as he passed by the stricken Toro Rosso - or at least more than the two Lotus cars which proceeded to progress to the top-ten shoot-out at his expense.
"I knew I could have gained a couple of extra tenths in that final sector, but as things panned out I couldn't improve because of the yellows," said Jenson afterwards. "It's just one of those things."
Chain reactions are nothing new in F1, and Button's exit appeared to have the effect of reenergising Hamilton as he picked up the McLaren baton to make a productive dash forward at the end of Q3. Prior to that, the 2008 World Champion had struggled for balance to the extent of being fortunate to avoid the humiliation of being denied entry to Q2.
While the under-pressure Charles Pic and Vitaly Petrov did their hopes of keeping a place on the grid for 2013 a power of good by out-pacing respective team-mates Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen, Bruno Senna proved the exception to the rule that nothing quickens a F1 driver like the threat of a job cut by aborting his final lap as Q1 reached its finale. Had the Williams driver managed to hook up his lap then the 16th-placed Hamilton, marooned in the pits upon instruction from his McLaren team, would have suffered an ignominious early exit.
He didn't and so Hamilton's title fight lives on for at least another day, as does Alonso's. But it would be the shock of the season if Sunday doesn't belong to a Red Bull.