Lewis Hamilton took a surprisingly dominant pole position as Sebastian Vettel had to settle for third.
It was the McLaren driver’s 24th career pole, though Vettel had been heavily favoured, having finished top of the timesheets in each of the three practice sessions. The Red Bull driver, however, had no answer to Hamilton in Q3, and was over half a second off the pace. The reigning World Champion was even pushed back to third by the charging Williams of Pastor Maldonado.
“If you don’t do the last step in qualifying it’s a shame, because I think the speed was there. It didn’t come together in the end,” said Vettel. “In Q2 I got a lap and I was reasonably safe. I was off Lewis by one and a half tenths I think, but I was confident that we could go quicker. If, would, could, should – we don’t know. In the end I was even struggling to repeat the lap I did in the beginning. However, the speed is there and we have been competitive all weekend. The race is long, a safety car can happen and it’s important to be in the right place at the right time.”
Hamilton was naturally delighted with his efforts: “It was a great lap and I’m very happy with it,” said the McLaren driver. “We’ve put ourselves in the best position so I hope that we will be able to capitalise on that tomorrow.
Maldonado was bullish about his chances of taking the fight to Hamilton. “I think it's possible to overtake here, especially because of the big tyre degradation that we will have tomorrow. I think everybody will be struggling with the tyres at some time, but the strategy must be really good for everyone, just to try to be consistent but I think here it's possible to overtake. We have a long straight, good DRS, it's not going to be very easy but we have a couple of places.”
Vettel will be joined on row two by Jenson Button, while behind them Championship leader Fernando Alonso is fifth, alongside the Force India of Paul di Resta. Mark Webber was seventh in the second Red Bull and Romain Grosjean eight after an eventful qualifying session which included a spin and contact with the wall. Behind him the two Mercedes took the final places in the top ten, with Rosberg ahead of Schumacher, though neither set a Q3 time. “We could have tried to make up one or two positions, although this would have been very difficult,” said Schumacher. “However we decided to give up this possibility in favour of the fact that we now have a fresh set and free choice of tyres going into the race.”
Nico Hülkenberg, having looked very competitive in practice was a surprising elimination in Q2, missing out by three-hundredths of a second. The others big scalps were Kimi Räikkönen (12th), Felipe Massa (13th) and Sergio Pérez (14th). Daniel Ricciardo narrowly edged out Jean-Eric Vergne for fifteenth as the Toro Rossos continued their own private battle. Bruno Senna did not set a time in Q2, damaging his suspension after heavy contact with the wall on his first timed lap.
The surprise elimination in Q1 was Kamui Kobayashi (18th), though Sauber have not looked competitive throughout the weekend. Behind him Vitaly Petrov (19th) got the better of team-mate Heikki Kovalainen (20th). Timo Glock (21st) was in front of Charles Pic (22nd), while Narain Karthikeyan (23rd) out-qualified Pedro de la Rosa (24th) for the second race in succession.