Saturday 8 October 2011

Suzuka Qualifying: Vettel touches down after McLaren fumble

Sebastian Vettel takes pole position, after McLaren fumble. Sounds rather familiar doesn't it?

Sebastian Vettel took yet another pole
Credit: Morio / CC
Yes, Vettel will again start a Grand Prix from the front tomorrow at Suzuka. It's his 12th pole of the season (and Nigel Mansell's record of 14 looks under genuine threat with three rounds to go), and his 27th ever. But this was no run-of-the-mill Seb qualifying dominance. This time it looked like he would have to step down, and that it would be the first time that a Red Bull wouldn't head the grid this year, as McLaren were making good on their practice pace and headed the times after the first efforts in the final qualifying session, with Lewis Hamilton ahead.

But then, and not for the first time this season, someone made what looked on the outside to be an elementary error. Lewis couldn't find a gap in the traffic to start his final flying lap, and didn't make it over the line before the session timing counted down to zero amazingly, meaning he couldn't do another time. Vettel's prodigious qualifying skills did the rest, turning the speck of light into the maximum advantage, and claiming pole by just 0.009 of a second from Button in second. Lewis lines up third, and reckons he had a couple of tenths in hand for a final run. Afterwards, his was a face that could stop a clock.

Seb doesn't usually need a helping hand, and the Red Bulls' stellar race pace seen in practice may mean he disappears tomorrow. He's certainly got the controlling-the-race-from-the-front business down to a nicety this year. Short of unreliability or something else equally unforeseen, it's impossible to see how Seb won't be celebrating his second title tomorrow evening as well.

Lewis Hamilton was impeded by a fumble
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Still, McLaren surprised everyone in qualifying today with their pace, their new rear wing seemingly delivering a lot of performance around here. Despite everything, they still line up second and third and could well give Seb plenty to think about tomorrow. Pole would have represented some absolution for Lewis after a difficult weekend off the track, and his qualifying fortunes today continue his annus horribilis. Perhaps his luck will finally turn tomorrow, and remember that form is temporary and class is permanent.

Behind the top three we have the Ferraris, with Massa squeaking ahead of Alonso, and only then Webber, who also was caught up in the cat and mouse before the line at the end (though he did make it over the line just in time to complete a second run). He'll be disappointed with sixth on the grid, even more so that he's close to seven tenths shy of Vettel. Still, if the Bulls' race pace is all it's cracked up to be he may come on strong tomorrow.

Felipe Massa did well to qualify fourth
Credit: / CC
Tyres once again are a talking point for the race, the high lateral loads from the long corners at Suzuka offering a very different challenge to Singapore and Monza. There are some gloomy predictions of five stop races. I'd be surprised to see that, but careful tyre management, especially on the softer tyres that the leaders are starting on, will be crucial. Seb usually does that to a nicety, and it may help Ferrari as well, whose tyre handling is relatively gentle usually (though that wasn't seen at Singapore). Plenty to think about for the drivers tomorrow.

Qualifying results

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