Sebastian Vettel claimed the 17th pole position of his Formula 1 career.
The reigning World Champion stole the top spot from Lewis Hamilton at the death with a truly stunning lap around Malaysia’s Sepang circuit.
Both McLaren’s looked startlingly quick throughout qualifying, but it was Vettel that nailed the quickest tour when it mattered most – his time of 1:34.870 would prove to be unbeatable.
“In qualifying everything worked out straight away. It was very close in the end with the McLaren guys, so I’m happy to get pole.”
Vettel also had some positive notes about the work done since Australia two weeks ago:
“Big compliments to the guys in the team – especially those working on KERS, they did a lot of work since Australia. If we wouldn’t have had it today, we wouldn’t be sitting here now…”
Hamilton, meanwhile, appeared happier about his chances than he was in Melbourne, although the 2008 World Champion was still realistic about the task ahead.
“That was an almost perfect lap – I lost a tenth-and-a-half in Turn 14 – so we’re much closer to the front than we’d anticipated, which is positive for us. I’m really happy to be up on the front row. Hopefully, I’ll have a better start than I did in Melbourne, so we can have more of a fight and I’ll get a chance to compete with Sebastian at the first corner and for the first couple of laps.”
The second Red Bull of Mark Webber split the McLaren pair, although the Australian found himself a clear three-tenths shy of his teammate.
For Ferrari however, their disappointing start to the 2011 season continued. Leading Scuderia pilot, Fernando Alonso secured 5th on the grid, albeit a full second slower than Vettel; the Spaniard cut a forlorn figure following the chequered flag. As with last year, Alonso possessed a half-second advantage over teammate Felipe Massa, who qualified in 7th, while the Brazilian continues to struggle with the new Pirelli tyres.
The Ferrari’s were split by Nick Heidfeld, while second Renault pilot Vitaly Petrov secured 8th. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) and Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) claimed the 5th row.
Indeed, it was Rosberg who knocked Michael Schumacher out of qualifying at the tail end of the second session. The veteran missed out by two-tenths thanks – in part – to a malfunctioning rear wing, leaving the silver machines at the mercy of other competitors on the straights.
Following the session, a frustrated Ross Brawn made his feelings known.
“We had a difficult qualifying session today. We’re still struggling with the consistency of the car and are not giving Nico and Michael the best chance to show what they could achieve. There are times when the car is working well and the pace is evident, however there are too many occasions where things are not functioning properly. We’re quite clearly not where we want to be…
Schumacher pipped the Toro Rosso pair, led by Sebastien Buemi. The Swiss national suffered something of a fraught qualifying, having caused a red flag after his sidepod flew off his Ferrari-powered machine, yet despite his issues Buemi still outran Jaime Alguersuari. Paul di Resta took 14th to out-qualified his Force India teammate, Adrian Sutil (17th), while also squeezing Rubens Barrichello (15th, Williams) and Sergio Perez (16th, Sauber).
The surprise drop out from the first qualifying session was Williams’ Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan missed out by one-tenth following a poor final run. The Williams is to be joined at the rear by the usual runners headed by the Lotus pair of Heikki Kovalainen (19th) and Jarno Trulli (20th).
Timo Glock and Jerome d’Ambrosio secured the eleventh row, but the real success came on the final row as Hispania not only qualified for the race, but did so by quite a large margin. Indeed Vitantonio Liuzzi was two seconds inside the 107% rule, while Narain Karthikeyan lines up in last spot, albeit with one second in hand.
Afterwards, a relieved Hispania team principal Colin Kolles, was both proud and relieved:
“We made the next step by qualifying into the race. This was our target: to qualify and to be able to do more laps. Both drivers did a good job out there today…
Once more, I would like to thank the whole team for their massive effort. Now we have our next target in mind which is to keep doing laps and finish tomorrow’s race with both cars.”
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