Vettel’s sole remaining title rival Fernando Alonso could only manage ninth place in qualifying but the Ferrari driver will start at least one place further up the grid after fourth-placed qualifier Romain Grosjean was hit with a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change.
Vettel had dominated on Friday despite a water leak that sidelined him for much of the afternoon running and he continued to set the pace on Saturday with another potent display in the final practice hour, finishing three tenths clear of Hamilton.
Hamilton edged closer in qualifying, narrowing the gap to a tenth, but it was still Vettel’s name at the top of the timesheet when the timer hit zero at the end of the hour-long session and so the German will line up at the front of a grand prix for the 36th time in his career.
“I’m very pleased with the result obviously,” said the championship leader afterwards. “Through qualifying I think we were very happy. In the last section I would have loved to go a little bit quicker but I think I lost a little bit in the first and the last sector. It was a little bit closer than I wanted with Lewis, but overall, fantastic. Obviously, it’s very important here to start from the front. We start on the clean side, so it should be a good race tomorrow.”
However, asked to comment on Alonso’s lowly grid slot, Vettel wouldn’t be drawn on what it meant for the Drivers’ title battle.
“There’s not much to feel about it,” he said of the Spaniard’s starting position. “We have to look after ourselves. As I said, I’m very happy with the result, but so far nobody has scored any points.
“I think we saw at the last race how quickly things can change and even starting at the back gives you opportunities, so we need to wait and see. For us, we focus on our race and tomorrow we have the chance to seal the Constructors’ Championship for the team so that’s what Mark and I will probably be looking out for.”
Alonso, meanwhile, said that despite his poor showing in qualifying he has “a strange feeling” he will still be able to take the fight to Vettel in the race.
“We expected that,” he said of his worst qualifying result since a rear anti-roll bar failure left him 10th on the grid in Italy in September. “We started seventh in Abu Dhabi and we knew it would still be complicated here but, as always, the race is tomorrow and I still think we’re going to reduce the gap to Sebastian. I just have a strange feeling.”
The strange feeling was proved right when Grosjean was hit with a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change. The penalty means Alonso will start eighth. There was a brief possibility that he would start even higher when Webber was summoned by the race stewards to answer for a missed call to the weigh bridge but the Australian emerged with just a reprimand.
Hamilton, meanwhile, admitted that he is concerned about his chances at the start despite his position beside Vettel on the front-row.
“I’m not really concerned about the first corner, I’m more concerned about the dirty side of the grid,” he said. “I did a launch from it earlier on in P3 and it was quite slippery. Hopefully tomorrow is just about getting a good start. It’s so wide in Turn One, I don’t think really much can go wrong there. Obviously I don’t want to get in the way of Sebastian’s race. However, I do want to win, so I’ll try my best to get through cleanly.”
With Grosjean fourth in the session, fifth was left to team-mate Kimi Raikkonen. Michael Schumacher finished in sixth position, while seventh was taken by Felipe Massa. Nico Hulkenberg ended the session in eighth place with Alonso ninth and Pastor Maldonado tenth.
Further back, Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne scored his best grid position since the Spanish Grand Prix, with 14th position. Team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, however, failed to make it out Q1 for only the third time this season.