Sebastian Vettel has claimed his twelfth pole position of the season

Sebastian Vettel has claimed his twelfth pole position of the season as Red Bull Racing continues to enjoy a clean sweep of poles in 2011, although the German was made to work hard to claim the top spot in what will be a much-talked-about qualifying session ahead of tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

With many rivals desperately trying to conserve tyres for tomorrow’s race, Vettel was forced to attempt another qualifying run in the final phase of qualifying, snatching the top spot from provisional pole-sitter Jenson Button by just 0.009 seconds.

Button had led the way in each of the previous three practice sessions, and McLaren looked set to have its most competitive qualifying showing of the season when Lewis Hamilton staked his claim for pole by going quickest in Q2 and the early part of Q3.

But the 2008 World Champion left his run at defending his provisional pole too late into the session, and he had to settle for third as Button, and then Vettel, managed to better his fastest time.

A stony-faced Hamilton would later complain that he had been held up on his out-lap by Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber – both of whom were attempting to trying and start their own hot-laps – but stewards took no further action.

Behind Hamilton, the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa will start fourth and fifth, while Mark Webber was the only other runner in Q3 to attempt to register a lap-time, and he will start from sixth place.

Sadly, this session may perhaps be remembered for being the first of the season where several teams and drivers took the extreme position of not bothering to run many laps in a bid to preserve tyre sets for tomorrow’s race. It was a serious anticlimax for the sport’s fans, both at the circuit and watching on TV worldwide.

With an unprecedented four drivers – Kamui Kobayashi, Michael Schumacher, Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov – failing to post a flying lap time in Q3, the rule book had to come out to determine the actual starting order for positions seven through ten. In the end, home crowd favourite Kobayashi got the best of the four starting positions, followed by Schumacher, Senna and Petrov.

Kobayashi had sent the packed Suzuka grandstands into raptures when he went fastest in Q1, and then gave one of his strongest qualifying showings to ease into the top-ten shootout for pole.

Renault’s last-minute runs in Q2 were enough to see them sneak into Q3 at the expense of the Force Indias and Toro Rossos – whose drivers had looked likely candidates for Q3 berths – while the Force India pairing of Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta will share the fifth row.

An equally last-minute burst from the Williams pairing of Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado saw them challenge for top-ten spots, only to be eased out in the dying seconds. As it was, the Brazilian and the Venezuelan will share the seventh row, a result far better than most had expected given the cars’ lack of track time this weekend.

Toro Rosso’s strategy not to attempt another round of flying laps after their first Q2 runs – which had looked strong enough to warrant a berth in the top-ten – backfired, with Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari occupying the eighth row, one spot ahead of Sauber rookie Sergio Pérez, who did not post a lap time in Q2.

Not surprisingly, the Lotus, Virgin Racing and HRT teams occupied the list of drivers who took an early bath at the end of the first knockout phase of qualifying, with the Lotus pairing of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli comfortably outpacing the Virgin duo of Jérôme d’Ambrosio and Timo Glock.

Daniel Ricciardo managed to qualify off the back row of the grid, in his HRT, although his cause was helped by Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg suffering a hydraulics problem and being unable to post a time in Q1.

Ricciardo’s team-mate Vitantonio Liuzzi was another driver not to post a flying lap, with his car undergoing repairs after it suffered a mechanical failure earlier in the day during final practice. Liuzzi has been hit by a raft of problems, and has completed barely a dozen laps all weekend.

So it’s all set for an interesting race tomorrow, which will be all about tyre management. Oh, and the single point that Sebastian Vettel needs to become the sport’s youngest-ever double World Champion.



2011 Japanese Grand Prix – Qualifying Session Times:

Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3
1. Sebastian Vettel DEU Red Bull Racing Renault 1:33.051 1:31.424 1:30.466
2. Jenson Button GBR McLaren Mercedes 1:32.947 1:31.434 1:30.475
3. Lewis Hamilton GBR McLaren Mercedes 1:32.843 1:31.139 1:30.617
4. Fernando Alonso ESP Ferrari 1:32.817 1:31.909 1:30.804
5. Felipe Massa BRZ Ferrari 1:33.235 1:31.612 1:30.886
6. Mark Webber AUS Red Bull Racing Renault 1:33.135 1:31.576 1:31.156
7. Kamui Kobayashi JPN Sauber Ferrari 1:32.626 1:32.380 no time
8. Michael Schumacher DEU Mercedes GP 1:33.748 1:32.116 no time
9. Bruno Senna BRZ Renault 1:33.359 1:32.297 no time
10. Vitaly Petrov RUS Renault 1:32.877 1:32.245 no time
11. Adrian Sutil DEU Force India Mercedes 1:32.761 1:32.463  
12. Paul di Resta GBR Force India Mercedes 1:33.499 1:32.746  
13. Rubens Barrichello BRZ Williams Cosworth 1:33.921 1:33.079  
14. Pastor Maldonado VEN Williams Cosworth 1:33.781 1:33.224  
15. Sébastien Buemi SUI Toro Rosso Ferrari 1:33.064 1:33.227  
16. Jaime Alguersuari ESP Toro Rosso Ferrari 1:35.111 1:33.427  
17. Sergio Pérez MEX Sauber Ferrari 1:34.704 no time  
18. Heikki Kovalainen FIN Team Lotus Renault 1:35.454    
19. Jarno Trulli ITA Team Lotus Renault 1:35.514    
20. Jérôme d’Ambrosio BEL Virgin Racing Cosworth 1:36.439    
21. Timo Glock DEU Virgin Racing Cosworth 1:36.507    
22. Daniel Ricciardo AUS HRT F1 Cosworth 1:37.846    
  OUTSIDE 107%     1:39.109    
DNQ. Nico Rosberg DEU Mercedes GP no time    
DNQ. Vitantonio Liuzzi ITA HRT F1 Cosworth no time    

[Images via Sutton Images and LAT]

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.