There’s just no stopping Sebastian Vettel as he claimed his sixth pole position of this season by 0.218s over Lewis Hamilton in Korea.
Hamilton, who many believed – and hoped – could take the fight to Vettel at the Korean International Circuit just lacked the pace needed to do so when it really mattered. He finished 0.218s down and in doing so secured what will be Vettel and Hamilton’s 20th front row start together.
Mark Webber qualified third but will drop 10 place for his penalty for his third reprimand meaning Romain Grosjean and Nico Rosberg will make up the second row of the grid ahead of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
It had clouded over since morning practice with the track temperature 5-6C lower, yet the ambient temperature was still 25C with the track at 33C. Cars went out on the Medium tyre to set their early laps – braving the ‘ramp’ that was the new pitlane exit.
There was no great rush to set a time and with fourteen minutes gone it was still Esteban Gutierrez as the solitary entry on the timesheets at 1:41.058. Sauber team-mate Nico Hulkenberg reduced that to a 1:40.747, Jenson Button cut it to 1:40.169 before Nico Rosberg set a 1:39.415.
Cars were doing three timed laps – a fast, a slow, then another fast. Thus Lewis Hamilton could only manage P2 first time round, then set fastest with a 1:38.574.
With eight minutes to go, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean were yet to set a time, but the lap that got everybody’s attention was Gutierrez’s first run on the SuperSoft tyre. It put him P2 right behind Hamilton – it also meant that a lot of cars would have to start switching to Supersofts, because Gutierrez has often been eliminated in Q1 this season.
In Singapore, the Mexican driver had reached Q3 for the first time in his career – was it an exceptional lap buoyed by new-found confidence? Nobody was taking any risks. Even the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg switched to SuperSofts while the two Red Bulls and Romain Grosjean were already committed to going out on Mediums.
The late-starting Red Bulls crossed the line with Vettel in P3 and then Webber taking P3. At the four-minutes-to-go mark it was: 14.Sutil, 15.Maldonado, 16.Bottas, 17.Vergne, 18.Chilton, 19.van der Garde, 20.Pic, 21.Bianchi, 22.Grosjean (no time).
Nico Hulkenberg claimed P1 with his faster tyres, then Nico Rosberg with a 1:38.418 and then Kimi Raikkonen took it off him with a 1:38.341 – the Finn having to use a set of SuperSofts while his team-mate made do with a set of Mediums to go P8.
This left the danger positions as 16.Maldonado, 17.Bottas, 18.Vergne – as all the cars scrambled to get a lap in on SuperSoft tyres. The two Ferraris left it late and at one point Alonso had sunk to P15 and Massa to P17 before they hauled themselves well clear.
One second it was: 15.Alonso, 16.Bottas, 17.Massa, 18.Maldonado
The next it was: 15.Webber, 16.DiResta, 17.Bottas, 18.Maldonado
DiResta was critical of an “unbelievable” Jules Bianchi getting in his way, but as the Williams couldn’t improve he was through. Mercedes noticed that Rosberg had a right rear puncture as he cruised in.
So out went: 17.Bottas, 18.Maldonado, 19.Pic, 20.van der Garde, 21.Bianchi, 22.Chilton
Max Chilton had been leading the ‘new’ teams going into the final laps but found himself in a familiar position when the dust settled. Williams’ Bottas didn’t have the new front wing of his team-mate Maldonado, yet he was still half a second quicker.
As in the first session, there was little action at the start of Q2 until eventually Kimi Raikkonen and the two Toro Rossos took to the track. Everyone was keen to re-use the set of SuperSofts they’d just used to escape Q1.
First into P1 was Daniel Ricciardo with a 1:39.254, instantly removed from the top by Kimi Raikkonen with a 1:39.236, then Nico Hulkenberg with a 1:38.965 and Fernando Alonso with a 1:38.504.
Lewis Hamilton showed what a difference a new set could make by putting his Mercedes in P1 with a 1:37.824.
Replays showed Jean-Eric Vergne struggling to keep control of his Toro Rosso and he returned to the pits without finishing the lap. Yet again it was Vettel, Webber and Grosjean who left it late in the session to set a time. With four minutes to go it was this trio and Vergne who had yet to trouble the timesheets. The positions were: 7.Hulkenberg, 8.DiResta, 9.Perez, 10.Raikkonen, 11.Ricciardo, 12.Sutil, 13.Vettel (no time) 14.Webber (no time) 15.Grosjean (no time) 16.Vrgne (no time)
Mark Webber duly put his Red Bull into P2, Vettel took P1 with a 1:37.569, while Grosjean cruised into P5. At the top it was the two Mercedes, the two Red Bulls and Grosjean’s Lotus – everyone else came back out on track to fight for position.
Raikkonen jumped to P6, Fernando Alonso made himself safe in P4 – Nico Hulkenberg put in an epic first sector of 34.3, this when everyone else was doing 34.6 or worse and took P4, Ricciardo edged into the top ten in P9, Perez replaced him. His McLaren team-mate Jenson Button was slightly impeded by Kimi Raikkonen and came up short of the Mexican, but both had been beaten by Massa in P9 and a resurgent Esteban Gutierrez in P10.
So out went: 11.Perez, 12.Button, 13.Ricciardo, 14.Sutil, 15.DiResta, 16.Vergne
The margins at the dropzone were tiny for a 1:40-ish lap, but Gutierrez had made it two sessions in a row into Q3.
It was the five cars who didn’t go out at the end of Q2 who had the luxury of two runs in Q3. Nico Rosberg set provisional pole with a 1:37.679, Mark Webber bettered it with a 1:37.464, Lewis Hamilton could only manage P2, Romain Grosjean displaced Rosberg to grab P3 and then Sebastian Vettel did something familiar and took provisional P1 with a 1:37.202
So after the first run it was: Vettel, Webber, Hamilton, Grosjean, Rosberg.
All ten cars left the pits for the final time, with Vettel out last so that he could judge whether he needed to put in that extra effort to retain pole. Gutierrez took P6, Rosberg stayed in P5, Mark Webber aborted the lap and returned to the pits. Webber thought he actually had the pace to beat Vettel but his car had been set up knowing that he would have to overtake cars with his ten-place grid penalty.
“We had to keep an eye on the race, with the ratios and all those things,” said Webber. “You try to have a more balanced view of the weekend as we always knew we would be out of position. We had to take a bit of pace out of the car. I’m pretty happy, I could be two positions further up and be 11th rather than 13th, but it was a pretty tight qualifying.”
Hamilton jumped ahead of him to grab P2. Alonso edged out Felipe Massa to take P6, with Nico Hulkenberg reversing the Sauber qualifying order from Singapore and edging Gutierrez by less than two tenths. However it was Kimi Raikkonen who came off worst in the last gasp dash. Kimi locked up on entry to Turn 10, which caused him to run wide and miss the apex. He did the same at Turn 12 at which point he decided to abort his lap. “I made a mistake so I knew the the lap was gone. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
With Hamilton and Rosberg slower, Vettel had no need to take any more life out of his tyres and returned to the pits in P1, the 42nd pole of his career.
01 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:37.202
02 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:37.420 +0.218
03 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:37.464 +0.262
04 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:37.531 +0.329
05 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:37.679 +0.477
06 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:38.038 +0.836
07 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:38.223 +1.021
08 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:38.237 +1.035
09 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:38.405 +1.203
10 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:38.822 +1.620
11 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:38.362 +0.793
12 Jenson Button McLaren 1:38.365 +0.796
13 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:38.417 +0.848
14 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:38.431 +0.862
15 Paul di Resta Force India 1:38.718 +1.149
16 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:38.781 +1.212
17 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:39.470 +1.129
18 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:39.987 +1.646
19 Charles Pic Caterham 1:40.864 +2.523
20 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:40.871 +2.530
21 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:41.169 +2.828
22 Max Chilton Marussia 1:41.322 +2.981