Sebastian Vettel scored pole position for the FIA Formula One European Grand Prix, finishing with a time of 1:38.086. The pole was Vettel's third in a row at the Valencia Street Circuit in Valencia, Spain, and the Red Bull Racing driver backed both those previous poles with victories. It was also Vettel's third pole of the 2012 Formula One season, having previously scored poles in Canada and Bahrain. This pole gave the defending world champion thirty-three career formula one poles, tying him with Jim Clark and Alain Prost on the all-time list.
Lewis Hamilton in the McLaren-Mercedes was second fastest with a time of 1:38.410 and Williams-Renault driver Pastor Maldonado was third with a time of 1:38.475.
In the end it was a surprising gap
The third qualifying session (Q3) was not quite as tight as Q2 had been, with the top ten in Q3 being separated by almost a full second. Only the top three and Raikkonen (who finished fifth) improved on their Q2 times. The three tenths with which Vettel finished ahead of Hamilton was a surprisingly big gap to Vettel.
"Yeah, one shot there at the end which turned out to be a very good lap," said Vettel. "In the end it was a surprising gap," he admitted. "I think it was a great recovery from Q1 and Q2 today, as I didn't feel entirely happy in those. It had been a good weekend leading up to qualifying, but conditions changed before Q1. However in the end we pulled it all together."
Hamilton, however, was more surprised that he finished as high as second, grabbing the position on his final run, too.
"To be honest, I expected to be a lot further back," he said. "We've struggled all weekend. Going into qualifying we had to make some guesses as to what kind of set-up we wanted to change. I'm extremely happy to be starting on the front row. To see other teams make big improvements to their cars this weekend, and yet still be starting from P2, is a surprise that I'll happily take."
Maldonado, who topped Q1 and was quick throughout qualifying, had a big wobble on his first run in Q3, which he aborted, but recovered later to post the third fastest time.
"We were struggling a bit with the option [softer] tires," he admitted. "We were a bit confused because the car did not feel the same as with the prime [harder] tires. For qualifying we understood them a bit better and here we are."
While things went well for Vettel, the same cannot be said for his teammate Mark Webber, who did not even make it through Q1. Webber had suffered brake troubles in final practice and had only completed four laps. He then had no DRS for qualifying.
"I had no DRS, which costs about 1.3 second per lap and made it difficult," said Webber. "The car's put up a big fight today, we only managed to do four [flying] laps and three of those were in qualifying. In the first qualifying session we did one lap on the harder tire and then went out on the soft tire to try and get through as it was so tight. The lap time actually wasn't too bad considering we didn't have DRS."
Before Vettel's and Hamilton's late heroics in Q3, only four drivers had set a time with just two minutes remaining in the session. Nico Rosberg sat ahead of Jenson Button, Hamilton (from a previous run), and Kimi Raikkonen.
Raikkonen's Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean then went quickest, then Maldonado topped the charts momentarily with his final run. Force India pilot Paul Di Resta looked to go fastest, but had a poor third sector to go 8th at that point.
Then Vettel, on his final run, was incredibly half a second faster than all other times at the second sector mark, and finished the lap fastest overall by four tenths. Hamilton then completed his final run to finish second.
Thus, behind the top three were Grosjean followed by Raikkonen, then Rosberg, Kamui Kobayashi, Nico Hulkenberg, Button and Di Resta.
Button, who was generally invisible throughout qualifying, was confused by his car's performance.
"Somehow, my car felt very different on fresh rubber at the end of Q3 than it had felt all day up to then," he said. "On my final run in Q3, the balance felt very different -- I had too much understeer -- and, every time I touched the brakes, I locked the fronts. I don't know whether the circuit had changed, but I just couldn't stop locking my fronts."
Suffering more than Button, however, were the Ferrari drivers, who were both missing from the top ten. While Felipe Massa has been eliminated a number of times this year in Q2, his teammate Fernando Alonso has moved on in all but the season opener in Australia. Massa finished thirteenth, less than a tenth of a second behind Alonso in eleventh.
"When you don't qualify for Q3, it's obviously very sad and there's no point hiding the fact," lamented Alonso. "This result is a cold shower, because our expectations were high and the car's potential has also increased, to the extent that in Q2, we were only three tenths off the best."
Massa was frustrated not to have finished much higher, and was unhappy with his position.
"It's really frustrating ending up outside Q3 by less than a tenth," he said. "It was a very close qualifying, with so many drivers very near to one another in performance terms: in Q2, we were three tenths off the fastest time and we were eliminated. A shame because the feeling from the car was very good and I always felt comfortable and capable of fighting with the best. The position does not tell the truth: today we were worth a place in the top three rows."
Michael Schumacher, twelfth, split the two Ferrari in his Mercedes.
Behind Massa in fourteenth was the second Williams-Renault of Bruno Senna, followed by Sergio Perez in the second Sauber-Ferrari in fifteenth.
Behind them in sixteenth was a surprise finish. Heikki Kovalainen, driving perhaps better than he ever has recently, benefited from Webber's troubles and managed to get his Caterham-Renault through to Q2 for only the second time this season, ahead of both Toro Rosso cars. Daniel Ricciardo, who was seventeenth, was last of the drivers in Q2. His teammate Jean-Eric Vergne found himself eliminated in Q1 after finishing in eighteenth, just ahead of Webber. They were followed by Kovalainen's teammate Vitaly Petrov in twentieth.
Next up were the two HRT cars, with Pedro de la Rosa ahead of Narain Karthikeyan. They managed to qualify ahead of the Marussia of Charles Pic, the last of the runners. Pic's teammate Timo Glock did not run in qualifying due to a stomach illness.
Timo is not a guarantee to make the grid. A Marussia press release said, "Timo and the team will now seek further medical guidance this afternoon. Until such time as this guidance has been received, no decisions will be reached regarding tomorrow's race. A further statement will be issued on Sunday morning."
At the other end of the grid the front-runners were guided in their chances for the race.
"Strategy will be important tomorrow as it's very hot, but it will make it difficult for everyone," said Maldonado. "I'm looking forward to pushing for a podium finish tomorrow."
Hamilton was also talking podium, but more concerned about just getting points.
"Overtaking will be very difficult, as always here, but degradation will be a bigger issue for everyone, I think," he said. "I'll just be looking to score as many points as I can. If I can finish where I've qualified -- second -- that would consolidate my world title bid. Anything more than that -- a win in other words -- would, of course, be a bonus."
Vettel also would not make predictions on a great finish.
"It's difficult to predict," he said. "This year grid position is important but maybe not as important [as previous years]. We have been good here in previous years, so hopefully we can keep it up for tomorrow. The guys deserve that, they have worked hard all weekend."