Malaysian GP - Saturday - Qualifying Session Report
Vettel wins close Malaysian pole battle
Sebastian Vettel claimed a hard-fought pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix as both Red Bull drivers and both McLaren-Mercedes men fought it out in the dying seconds of the session.
Nobody elected to risk qualifying on the harder tyre and after the first run on Pirelli's option rubber it was Lewis Hamilton who led the way. But, running last of the four, it was Vettel who took pole at the death with a lap in 1:34.870 to Hamilton's 1:34.974. Mark Webber (1:35.179) lapped a couple of tenths behind Hamilton and Jenson Button (1:35.200) was three hundredths down on the Australian.
"It's been quite a challenging weekend so far," Vettel said. "I was happy with the car but never really got into a rhythm and it wasn't as smooth as we hoped for, but the main thing was to keep believing in it and it worked out in the end. Compliments to the guys in the team, especially with regard to the KERS system. We came here, solved most of our problems and I think if we hadn't had it today we wouldn't have beaten the McLarens."
Vettel admits, however, that there are question marks surrounding the race and the likely tyre performance characteristics on a Sepang surface that will present a very different challenge to Melbourne.
"We learned quite a lot in Australia but we came here and have seen that the tyres don't last as long," he said. "I think it will be a different race with more stops. It's important to be on the clean side of the grid here, so I'm happy about that but tomorrow is a new day. And we know that here it is very likely to rain..."
Lewis Hamilton admitted to making a slight error on his best lap, that may have cost him the vital tenth but was nonetheless happy at what was a much stronger performance from McLaren relative to Red Bull than we saw at the season opener.
"I didn't get P1 but I can't be disappointed," he smiled. "The team has done a great job to be up there with the Red Bulls and it was a good effort to get more new parts for this weekend. I would have loved to put it on pole but the Red Bulls still have a slight edge. They seem to have a bit better long run pace as well, so we'll have to see tomorrow. Why are we so much closer? It's a good question. Probably there were more medium and slow speed corners in Australia where we weren't so good and maybe we've also had more time to optimise the set-up. A couple of changes to the car have given us more efficiency."
Last year, it was Webber who qualified on the pole for Red Bull and Vettel who was third. "I knew everyone was on a similar pace and it was a better performance from me compared to Melbourne," Webber offered. "As Seb said, the guys have done a monumental job getting the KERS here. It's a good step."
On one lap pace at least, the Red Bulls and McLarens are showing a significant margin over the rest of the field with Fernando Alonso's Ferrari (1:35.802) annexing fifth place on the grid, ahead of Nick Heidfeld (1:36.124) who got it together to put the first Renault in the top six.
Felipe Massa (1:36.251) with the second Ferrari was fully 0.45s down on Alonso and just 0.07s clear of Vitaly Petrov (1:36.324) with the second Renault.
There was then another significant gap of almost half a second to Nico Rosberg's Mercedes (1:36.809), which is again disappointingly far away, almost two full seconds from the ultimate pace just a couple of hundredths clear of Kamui Kobayashi (1:36.820), whose Sauber-Ferrari completed the top 10.
Rosberg needed his final Q2 run to bump team mate Schumacher out of Q3 and Michael will therefore by the first starter with freedom of tyre choice. With rain expected on Sunday the dry tyre issues could all go out of the window, but if it is a dry race, the strategies will be interesting. With the soft tyre reckoned to be good for just eight or nine laps, and all the Q3 runners having done four laps with the set on which they are obliged to start the race, we can expect some early pit visits with the stoppers unlikely to clear the faster Q2 runners who will likely start on new sets of prime tyres, which could go 12-15 laps.
Sunday, therefore, could throw up some surprises, with a much closer battle in prospect than the one anticipated before a wheel was turned.