Sebastian Vettel believes matching Lewis Hamilton would have been a step too far for Red Bull even if they had got it together.
The German narrowly avoided a shocking Q1 exit, finishing the opening qualifying session down in 17th place with Mark Webber 16th.
However, he improved as the afternoon wore on, making his way into the final segment where he puts his Red Bull racer up into third place.
Vettel's qualifying time was a 1:21.416, which put him 0.463s behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton but only 0.050s adrift of the front row and Romain Grosjean's time
"It was difficult session for us. We didn't get into qualifying how we would like and the rhythm wasn't there straight away," he said.
"We burned more tyres than we thought in the beginning, so we only had one new set for Q3.
"The run we had was okay, but I didn't get the same feeling that I got at the end of Q2, which was a surprise, so we didn't seem to go with the track and make another step."
He added: "Romain was in reach, but Lewis was another step."
Vettel, who is third in the Drivers' Championship, 44 points behind Fernando Alonso, is now looking forward to a strong showing in Sunday's 70-lap Hungarian Grand Prix.
"We know it's difficult to overtake here, but hopefully we will have a good start. Tyre management will be crucial."