Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- Vettel equals Mansell’s 1992 pole record
- McLaren still hopeful ahead of Sunday’s race
- Again excellent performance by Force India
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel will start from first spot on the grid for tomorrow’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Vettel lapped the 5.554km long Yas Marina circuit in 1m38.481s, while McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was 0.141s slower and will start alongside the German on row one tomorrow. Jenson Button in the second McLaren took third place, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso took fourth and fifth place respectively, while Alonso’s Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa will start the race from sixth position.
Vettel, the 2010 and 2011 World Champion, equaled Nigel Mansell’s 1992 pole position record today, although it must be said Mansell took that record during a season with 16 races on the calendar, while Vettel equaled his record in a season with 19 races on the calendar. Nonetheless a major achievement for the 25-year young champion as he was again unbeatable during the last qualifying session. The German waited for his chance until the very last moment, went out as last in Q3 and was therefore also the last man who could set a time on the clock, did it convincingly and without mistakes, and added another pole to his tally.
Of course Vettel was pleased with his 14th pole, “In Q2 we were quite close to reaching Lewis [Hamilton] and we thought in Q3 we would have a chance. In the first run in Q3 I pushed a bit too hard, but in the last run I was able to have a good start in the lap.” And added, “When I crossed the line I looked up to the monitor and I couldn't read the lap time, but the green was good so I was very pleased.”
The unluckiest man of qualifying today was William’s Rubens Barrichello who had to stay in the garage with an engine problem, the Brazilian would normally have started from 24th and last place on the grid, but as his team mate Pastor Maldonado (who qualified in 17th) has a 10-place grid penalty for using a ninth engine this season, he will drop to 24th spot and Barrichello therefore moves up one place to 23rd on the grid.
Barrichello told the BBC about his problems, “This morning we fitted a brand new engine and it was looking great because I had saved one for the end of the season.” He used the new engine during the third practice session, but soon ran into more problems. “I had a bit of difficulty with it after two laps and we came back, we tried to review all the situation just before qualifying they told me there was no way so it's even more frustrating,” said Barrichello.
At the start of Q1 drivers were in a hurry to get out on track quickly, and Lotus Renault’s Bruno Senna was the one to put the first time on the clock, but he was soon knocked off first place by Jaime Alguersuari in the Toro Ross, but the Spaniard also quickly moved down the time sheets as the big guns started their dice for leading position. After five minutes it was Webber who set the early benchmark and recorded a time of 1m41.816s, but soon lost that place to Alonso, but the Spaniard also very quickly lost that place to Hamilton again.
Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari kept changing positions and with ten minutes left the order was: Hamilton, Webber, Vettel, Alonso, Nico Rosberg, Button, Adrian Sutil, Massa, Alguersuari and Scot Paul di Resta completed the top ten for Force India.
More interesting was the battle for the last seven places, strangely enough Michael Schumacher had not been able to record a good lap time in his Mercedes and was 23rd at the time, while Heikki Kovalainen was the fastest of the Team Lotus drivers and took 16th place temporarily. Schumacher did manage to improve his time and ascended to ninth place, but not for long as all drivers kept improving their times.
With five minutes to go in Q1 Hamilton was still leading the pack, while Schumacher had slipped down the order again and was then in a very precarious 18th position, and was in the drop-out zone again. He soon improved his time was then in 17th position, but that last position was relatively safe as the number 18 Kovalainen, was three-tenths of a second behind him. Also safe were the positions of the top ten drivers, and they stayed in the garage and sat out the remainder of Q1.
Vitaly Petrov decided he needed a set of soft option tyres and due to the faster rubber he leapt to eighth place, Maldonado did the same and took 13th place. Kovalainen tried to bridge the gap with Schumacher but couldn’t improve his time and took 18th position. Schumacher who was out as he had sensed the danger Kovalainen posed aborted his last run and returned to the pit in 17th place.
Out after Q1 were: Kovalainen, Trulli, both Marussia Virgin drivers Timo Glock and Jerome d’Ambrosio, and both HRT drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Vitantonio Liuzzi. By then Barrichello had already left the garage on foot without setting a timed lap.
“I am really pleased with that performance today,” said Kovalainen. “I pretty much nailed the quick lap and I think we know that where we are on race pace gives us another chance of a strong finish tomorrow,” he added.
When the lights turned to green for another 15 minutes of qualifying, again all drivers were in a hurry to quickly go out and set a time, this time it was Webber who set the benchmark and was also the first to go under the one minute 40 mark as he recorded a time of 1m39.209s, again he didn’t enjoy the lead very long, as Hamilton took his McLaren to first place beating the Australian with a very fast lap of 1m38.434s.
But with 9m15s still remaining, the red flag came out as one of the bollards in the chicane had been knocked off its place and was now in the middle of the track, Massa hit it and Button also hit a part of what was then left of it. Marshals quickly removed the debris and all drivers who had hastily retreated to the garage for some fine-tuning and a new set of tyres were back on track for the final run of Q2.
Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Button, Webber, Massa, Schumacher, Perez, Buemi and Petrov were in the top ten, while Kamui Kobayashi, Senna, Alguersuari, Rosberg, Maldonado, and both Force India drivers Sutil and di Resta were in the drop-out zone at the time. Rosberg obviously did not belong in the drop-out zone, but his flying lap was interrupted by the red flag. The German soon took sixth place and pushed Massa back into seventh place.
Di Resta was also on a flying lap, and despite the fact he made a few mistakes he took his Force India to eighth place, but his team mate Sutil was just a tad quicker and took over di Resta’s eighth place. As a result, Schumacher was now in 10th place, and was almost one second slower than Rosberg. Again Schumacher saw the danger as Perez and Senna were still out and on a flying lap, the German went out again to defend his 10th place but with just a few seconds to go Senna did improve his time, but was still in 13th place.
Perhaps Perez could knock Schumacher off 10th place? The Mexican was really flying but had to be satisfied with 11th spot, and Schumacher once again aborted his lap and returned to the pits, but it had been very close again for the seven times World Champion.
Meanwhile the whole top six were confident enough to stay in the garage, limiting the wear and tear of the tyres they need for the race tomorrow. Perez, Petrov, Buemi, Senna, Alguersuari, Kobayashi and Maldonado did not make it into Q3.
Perez was nevertheless pleased with the result, “I’m very happy with 11th in qualifying. Everybody in the team did a good job. I did my fastest lap time in Q2 with a set of soft tyres I had used before in Q1.” And he further commented, “Of course I was hoping to improve in Q2 when I got the fresh tyres, but it was impossible for me to get them to work.”
Buemi was also happy, “Overall, I am reasonably satisfied with my own performance, even if I am only thirteenth, one tenth of a second off eleventh place, which shows it was quite a difficult session. Tomorrow’s race will be tough and long and anything could happen and I will be looking to exploit any opportunity that comes my way and I should be able to fight with those cars directly in front of me on the grid.”
A good performance once again by the Force India drivers who made it into Q3. The next question was of course, could Vettel, who so far had not been able to dominate qualifying, again take pole position or could one of the McLaren’s spoil Red Bull’s usual Saturday pole party?
That question was soon to be answered as the complete top six immediately took onto the track while the clock ticked away the final 10 minutes of qualifying. Button went out first for his last run of the day, he was closely followed by his team mate Hamilton, who was also eager to take pole. Interestingly enough Rosberg went out on the medium compound, while the others started their last run on the softs.
Button recorded the first time and took the lead with a lap of 1m39.013s, but he was immediately beaten by Hamilton who took over first place with a time of 1m38.704s. Behind them were both Red Bulls, and there were already faster in the first sector, however both lost a little time in the last sector, Webber took second place at the time but was a few seconds later beaten by Vettel who in his turn took second place.
With only four minutes to go the order was: Hamilton, Vettel, Webber, Button, Alonso, Massa and Rosberg, while Schumacher and both Force India drivers decided to wait until the very last moment to put in a flying lap.
All seven quickly pitted for a fresh set of tyres, and then the final battle was ready to begin. Button was again out first, and Vettel was out last. With just one minute remaining, Button took first place, but Hamilton was faster with a time of 1m38.622s. Webber was also quick but scored third position right behind Button, who was now second. Both Ferraris were fourth and fifth.
And it was almost inevitable, Vettel who was the last to venture out on the Yas Marina circuit, was also the last man to set his time, and the two-time champion again won his 14th pole position of the season in style, 0.141s faster than Hamilton who took second place. As a result Webber, Alonso and Massa moved one place down the order and took fourth, fifth and sixth place respectively. Rosberg and Schumacher took seventh and eighth place for Mercedes, and Sutil and di Resta completed the top ten.
Fourth place man Webber was not entirely happy with today’s qualifying, “I'm disappointed with my last run, it was a bit scrappy. I’m disappointed as there is certainly more there, I didn't feel like I got the most out of it when it counted.”
Second place man Hamilton, who was pipped by Vettel at the very last moment, concluded he had done everything he could during the final moments of qualifying, ”It would be nice to have had pole position, but that Red Bull, as always, is very quick in Q3!” About his chances for the race tomorrow he said, “To be as competitive as we’ve been this weekend is very encouraging -- we’re on the front row so we can have a good race from there. And, for the first time in quite a while, my long-run pace was pretty good too, and I think we had more fuel on board than some of the other teams. I feel really good about tomorrow, in fact. I hope I have a good start – I really want to get into Turn One first!”
Button stated he had problems with his car, “The car changed quite a lot for qualifying. In practice I’d been struggling with the rear end; but, during qualifying, I suddenly had great rear grip and masses of under steer -- so the car felt completely different to me. Third isn’t a bad place from which to start -- hopefully we’ll get one over on the Red Bulls tomorrow.”
Ferrari’s Alonso took fifth place, but expects he can do better on Sunday, “McLaren and Red Bull are stronger than us on Saturday, while on Sunday the situation is usually different, with the gaps between us being much closer. We know we can fight for the podium, but to succeed, we will have to do everything perfectly, beginning with the start and our strategy.”
And indeed, it looks like Vettel is once again the man to beat, if he can be beaten that is, but certainly both McLaren and Ferrari will give it their best, and tomorrow again the second place in the Drivers’ Championship is at stake, as is the sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship.