Japanese GP - Saturday - Qualifying Session Report
Red Bull dominates Suzuka qualifying
Sebastian Vettel (1:30.839) and Mark Webber (1:31.090) locked out the front row of the grid for the Japanese Grand Prix, the Red Bull RB8 demonstrating a superiority that Vettel must hope will launch a meaningful championship challenge from his position, 29 points adrift of Fernando Alonso with six races remaining.
"We've worked hard to get the car to where it is now," Vettel said, his smile betraying happiness with his lot at Suzuka, where a 34th pole position puts him behind only Michael Schumacher (68) and Ayrton Senna (65) in the all-time records.
As I write though, race stewards are apparently looking into whether Vettel impeded Fernando Alonso during the session.
The high speed Suzuka circuit has always reflected the strength of Adrian Newey designs, even in years such as this, when restructive regulations have robbed the Red Bull of much of its downforce delivering innovation.
Webber, talking about the team's consistently strong performances at Suzuka, hit the nail on the head, when he said: "You only have to look at some of the previous performances from Adrian's Williams and McLaren designs here as well -- it's in the DNA and philosophy of our car."
Webber's hopes of dislodging his team mate from pole were hit by a spin from Kimi Raikkonen at Spoon Curve, which brought out yellows in the closing moments of the session as Webber was on his hot lap.
Jenson Button, last year's winner, lines up third with a lap in 1:31.290.
"We just weren't quick enough, the Red Bulls were too fast," Jenson admitted. "I can't put my finger on where the missing four tenths is. Unfortunately I have the grid penalty for a gearbox change as well, which means starting eighth. That's a tough place to start from but I'll still be fighting my hardest."
Kamui Kobayashi (1:31.700) has now outqualified team mate and new McLaren recruit Sergio Perez 9-6 this year and, with Sauber's C31 as strong as expected at Suzuka, starts fourth on the grid, provided he is cleared from failing to slow under the yellows. By the time Button takes his penalty, Kobayashi will start third, the highest position ever achieved by a Japanese driver at home -- Takuma Sato started fourth in 2004.
Romain Grosjean (1:31.898) was fifth quickest for Lotus, three places better off than team mate Kimi Raikkonen (1:32.208), who is the man with an outside shot at the championship and who really needed to start higher than eighth. The 2007 champion, on a new set of option tyres, lost the rear end in the middle of Spoon Curve and spun.
"It was a shame because the car felt better than it has all weekend," Raikkonen said.
Perez (1:32.022) starts sixth with the second Sauber, one lace better off than Fernando Alonso, who faces his most potentially dangerous race for some time with regard to his championship aspirations. The Red Bulls look pretty untouchable and Fernando has an unusual assortment of cars in front of him. He has come through bigger challenges this season already, such as winning from 11th in Valencia, but faces a testing Sunday afternoon.
Lewis Hamilton, totally unexpectedly, starts a disappointing ninth.
"I went the wrong way on set-up," he admitted, explaining that his McLaren had too much understeer in qualifying. He was also one of those badly affected by Raikkonen's spin.
Nico Hulkenberg won the battle of the Force Indias, by making it through to the top 10 with team mate Paul Di Resta 12th.
Although Red Bull must start a stong favourite, Suzuka is tough on tyres and there has been evidence of blistering thorughout practice, so tyre management and strategy will once again by key. On the evidence of today, however, it would be a brave man who bet against Vettel, who has now taken pole for four consecutive Suzukas.