Sebastian Vettel scored his third consecutive European Grand Prix pole position with a superb last-ditch lap at the Valencia street circuit. Lewis Hamilton will line up alongside the champion on the front row, with Pastor Maldonado third for Williams.
Vettel made his way through the first two segments of the hour-long session in safe but unspectacularly fashion, finishing Q1 in 14th position and in fourth place in the second section. In the final top-10 shoot-out, the champion stayed in the garage until the very end of the session to conserve a set of option tyres. But when he did emerge for his single run it was with intent. He set best times for the first two sectors and crossed the line just over three tenths ahead of Hamilton.
Afterwards, Red Bull driver admitted that he had struggled early on.
“We had one shot there at the end which turned out to be a very good lap,” he said. “Q1 and Q2 were not to our liking. We were struggling to find the balance we did have in practice. It was a good recovery. We had to put a second set of options in Q2. It was the right call because I don’t think my first lap was good enough.”
But as the track improved, the defending champion felt that an opportunity existed to battle for the front of the grid.
“In final qualifying, I knew going at the end [of the session], if the track comes in a little more, it should be good enough to have a look at pole,” he said. “I had a good feeling in the last lap and managed to put everything together and I was very happy it was enough for pole. In the end it was a surprising gap. The boys have been working hard in the garage and at the factory to bring new parts. They seem to work. I’m looking forward to race tomorrow.”
For Hamilton it was a similarly difficult session.
“I expected to be lot further back because we struggled all weekend with the set-up,” said the Briton. “Going from P3 into qualifying, we had to make a guess with the set-up. It seemed to work OK. I was able to get out the lap when I needed it – but obviously not quite as good as Sebastian did. However, the guys did a great job to get me a gap, and the car felt pretty good but I think the gap is quite big here.”
The big news before Q1 was that Marussia’s Timo Glock would not be taking part in the session, Marussia revealing that the German had been “fighting a bug” since Thursday and had felt so unwell after FP3 that he would not be able to compete in qualifying. His fitness to race will be assessed tomorrow morning.
The big news by the end of the session was that Mark Webber was the major front-running loser. The Australian had turned just four laps in the morning session, with work on the front end of his car eating up all but the first few minutes of the final free practice hour.
Disadvantaged by that, he did a run on the prime tyres in Q1 but quickly returned to the garage. Then he opted to switch to the soft tyres in a bid to ensure passage through to the second segment. However, a hydraulic problem hampered his progress and Webber was eventually dropped to a 19th place start.
“We had no DRS, and that’s about 1.3 seconds. It makes it very difficult when you have no DRS,” he said. “The car’s put up a good fight today. We only ran a few laps all day and three of those were in qualifying. One lap on the prime at the start and then we had to box, because it was playing up with the gearbox, the hydraulics. And then the guys did the right thing to put on the option as we were in a desperate situation then, to get through. It was very tight obviously. The lap time wasn’t too bad with the DRS out but it doesn’t help with the situation.”
The second segment would see more front runners struggle – most particularly Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, and also Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher.
Both Ferrari drivers opted to do an opening run on medium tyres as their rivals mostly went for the soft option and when Ferrai also switched to the soft option both failed to make the most of a single run on the compound. With the times incredibly tight, Alonso’s lap, three tenths off top man Romain Grosjean’s 1:38.489, was only good enough for 11th place. Schumacher finished the session 12th with Massa one place behind.
“I’m not particularly happy about not making it through Q2 but that was clearly down to me - I didn’t get my lap together,” said Schumacher. “On my first run, I was too aggressive in turn 12 on my first timed lap, then had to abort the second lap and pit because the tyres were no longer in good enough condition to improve. After that, I was a bit too conservative on the second run and that cost us, because the times were so close today.”
That left the final word to Vettel, whose blistering Q3 lap was enough to hand him a second pole in a row, following his front-of-grid start in Canada. Looking ahead to the race the Red Bull Racing driver admitted that in a season as unpredictable as this, pole was no guarantee of anything.
“I think it’s going to be a difficult race. Difficult to predict,” he said. “We have seen too much this year to be honest to sit here on Saturday afternoon and predict what’s going to happen. I think it’s probably easier to guess the result tonight in football than [the race result] tomorrow. I think this year obviously grid position is important but maybe not as important.”