Sebastian Vettel today pipped Lewis Hamilton to pole position for tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
At the last, the German managed a lap a tenth quicker than Hamilton’s best time, which had looked unbeatable as the Q3 session drew to a close.
Hamilton had been dominant for most of the final session and looked to have the measure of his team mate Jenson Button and Mark Webber in the other Red Bull.
But Vettel drew on some hitherto unseen reserves of pace and took pole with a fantastic lap in what was a completely dry Saturday afternoon in Sepang.
Webber will start third tomorrow, a result he must be pleased with after narrowly escaping the drop zone at the end of Q1.
Although it looked like he might be unable to replicate yesterday’s practice speed, the Australian was challenging the McLarens at the sharp end of the grid by the close of the session.
Button is fourth on the grid for tomorrow’s race, topping the Q2 timesheet but unable to stamp his authority on the shootout. He will be encouraged by the qualifying performance as a whole, however.
The four were comfortably faster than the rest of the field, with Fernando Alonso more than half a second off the back of Button’s speed. The Spaniard sits fifth on the grid, but the suspicion is that Ferrari do not have the overall competitiveness to challenge for the podium unless something happens to the frontrunners. Felipe Massa could only manage seventh on the grid.
Nick Heidfeld in the Renault clocked the sixth fastest time in Q3, a performance with which he must be happy after a disappointing debut for the team in Australia. The R31 obviously has latent pace and could spring a surprise if it rains tomorrow. Petrov in the sister car starts eighth tomorrow.
Nico Rosberg showed that Mercedes’ effective DRS could not yet translate into strong pace, but from ninth position he may yet be able to score highly. He once again outdid Michael Schumacher, who could not scrape into the final session and will start from 11th.
Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber was the final name in the top ten, proving that a legal Sauber still has some good speed. His team mate Sergio Perez could not repeat his Melbourne heroics and is 16th on the grid.
In a strong showing, the Toro Rossos of Sebastian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari took 12th and 13th respectively, and Paul di Resta once again beat his more experienced team mate Adrian Sutil. The Scot is 14th while Sutil, who is not enjoying a pleasant start to the season, is down in 17th slot.
Williams failed to live up to the promise shown in Melbourne – Rubens Barrichello starts 15th while Pastor Maldonado was the big name to go out in Q1 and is 18th.
Down at the back, the Lotuses were once again the class of the ‘second class’, with Kovalainen topping the group. Trulli is 20th, followed by Glock and d’Ambrosio in the Virgins. Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan did manage to qualify, no mean feat for a team that has yet to race in 2011. They are expected to be well off the pace, however, and the frontrunners need be extremely wary of them on track.
Rainstorms are predicted for tomorrow’s late afternoon kick-off in Sepang, and the extent of tyre wear and degradation in the heat and humidity is an unknown quantity.
Red Bull have strong pace but the margin between them and McLaren is not as considerable as it was in Australia. If a McLaren gets to the first corner first the race could be very interesting. Eyes should also be on the Renaults who could even be the dark horses for a win if the rain makes the race a lottery.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m34.870s
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m34.974s + 0.104
3. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m35.179s + 0.309
4. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m35.200s + 0.330
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m35.802s + 0.932
6. Nick Heidfeld Renault 1m36.124s + 1.254
7. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m36.251s + 1.381
8. Vitaly Petrov Renault 1m36.324s + 1.454
9. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m36.809s + 1.939
10. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m36.820s + 1.950
Q3 cut-off time: 1m36.811s Gap **
11. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m37.035s + 1.466
12. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.160s + 1.591
13. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.347s + 1.778
14. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m37.370s + 1.801
15. Rubens Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1m37.496s + 1.927
16. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m37.528s + 1.959
17. Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1m37.593s + 2.024
Q3 cut-off time: 1m38.163s Gap *
18. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 1m38.276s + 1.532
19. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 1m38.645s + 1.901
20. Jarno Trulli Lotus-Renault 1m38.791s + 2.047
21. Timo Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1m40.648s + 3.904
22. Jerome D’Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth 1m41.001s + 4.257
23. Tonio Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth 1m41.549s + 4.805
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m42.574s + 5.830
107% time: 1m43.516s
* Gap to quickest in Q1
** Gap to quickest in Q2