United States GP - Saturday - Qualifying Session Report
Vettel set fair for third title
Sebastian Vettel (1:35.657) claimed his sixth pole position of 2012 for what will be his 100th grand prix start and looks well set to become only the third man in F1 history -- after Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher -- to achieve three successive world titles.
Vettel has dominated every session of practice and qualifying at the impressive Circuit of the Americas and it looks as if only a problem at Turn 1 or some unforeseen reliabilty issues can stop him taking a fifth victory in six starts.
The fact that Vettel's pole position margin was just over a tenth of a second from Lewis Hamilton's McLaren (1:35.766) owed much to a committed, acrobatic lap from the man widely held to be the out and out quickest in F1.
Hamilton had been fully a second adrift of Vettel in Q2 but hooked up a tremendous Q3 lap to put the championship leader under some pressure.
"I was just on the limit everywhere," Hamilton said. "I gained a tenth going into the last corner but lost it again on the exit, but I'm pleased with the lap."
The tenth separating them was an important tenth because many drivers are predicting that even numbered grid slots off the racing line could cost drivers three or four places off the line on a circuit where the asphalt is new and grip levels on the 'dirty' side will be further reduced.
Mark Webber (1:36.174) starts third in the second Red Bull. The Australian missed a mandatory weight check at the end of Q1 but escaped with a reprimand.
Forth quickest on the day was Romain Grojean's Lotus (1:36.587) but the Frenchman will suffer a five place grid demotion for an unscheduled gearbox change, meaning that team mate Kimi Raikkonen (1:36.708) starts fourth and Michael Schumacher's Mercedes (1:36.794) is promoted to the clean side of the grid.
Felipe Massa (1:36.937) outqualified Fernando Alonso for only the second time in 2012 and starts sixth with the first Ferrari, ahead of Nico Hulkenberg (1:37.141), who contimnued an impressive run of form in the Force India.
If Vettel wins, Alonso (1:37.300) must finish in the top four to take the championship battle down to the wire at Interlagos in a week's time. That might be a big ask from eighth place on the dirty side of the grid.
"We never managed to put the lap together," Alonso said. "On these tyres and with these track conditions, that's always the last one that you do. We knew it would be a complicated weekend but clearly today we were too slow and we will start from too far back. But our aim remains unchanged and on Sundays anything can happen."
Pastor Maldonado's Williams (1:37.842) completed the top 10 qualifiers and starts one place ahead of team mate Bruno Senna, who is the first of those with freedom of tyre choice. Jenson Button lines up 12th after more reliability concerns hit McLaren and Button missed out on Q3 when he suffered a sudden loss of power due to a throttle issue in Q2.
Nico Rosberg had a bad day and starts 17th, his car running with a standard exhaust system in the interests of data gathering, while Schumacher used a Coanda exhaust. Without the extra heat from the exhaust hases, Rosberg was 1.4s slower than Schumacher in Q2, struggling to get the tyres into their operating window.
Turn 1 here is the big unknown, with Jenson Button among those predicting a great variety of different braking points into the blind, uphill corner. And, Jenson suggested, not everyone is going to get it right...