Formula 1 may be visiting a brand new track in a brand new country this weekend, but qualifying today in Korea gave a very familiar result. Red Bull locked-out the front row of the grid as Sebastian Vettel took his ninth pole position of the season and Mark Webber qualified second.
Fernando Alonso looked on course for pole throughout Q3 before Vettel put in a storming flying lap – a useful knack that the young German has shown on a number of occasions in qualifying this season.
Lewis Hamilton will start the inaugural Korean Grand Prix from fourth place, but his McLaren teammate Jenson Button struggled throughout the session and could only qualify seventh.
Nico Rosberg starts tomorrow's race from fifth. Joining the German on the third row will be the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa.
Robert Kubica, Michael Schumacher, and Rubens Barrichello will start eighth, ninth and tenth respectively.
Kubica was quickest in the final practice session earlier in the day, with Lewis Hamilton just 0.087 seconds slower than the Renault. Lap times were close, and a closely-fought competitive qualifying session was anticipated by all.
The five title contenders, along with Kubica and Felipe Massa, lingered in the pits as the green lights signalled the start of qualifying. Lewis Hamilton was the first of that group to emerge from the pits after four minutes of Q1 had elapsed.
Hamilton was top of the timesheets for most of Q1, and was still there at the end of the first part of qualifying. Sebastian Vettel was second fastest and Fernando Alonso was third. However, Jenson Button was having tyre-warming issues and finished Q1 down in eleventh.
Of course, Q1 only really matters to those in the bottom seven, and Tonio Liuzzi was again the driver joining the new teams in the knock-out positions. The Force India driver could not get higher than eighteenth, despite a last-ditch flying lap. Jarno Trulli, Timo Glock, Heikki Kovalainen, Lucas di Grassi, Sakon Yamamoto and Bruno Senna will be the order of the bottom six in tomorrow's race.
In Q2 the soft Bridgestone compound was used by the front runners for the first time in this qualifying session. Massa was first to don the 'option' tyre, and immediately pulled out a quick lap. This could well be the tyre of choice on race day, but there are still question marks over its durability on the newly laid track surface.
With just under five minutes left of Q2, everybody had switched to the softer tyre for their final attempts to secure a place in Q3. Mark Webber was fastest from Vettel. Massa was third, Hamilton fourth and Alonso fifth. Button made it through to Q3 by setting the seventh fastest time.
Nico Hulkenberg made a mistake on his final lap of Q2 and he qualified eleventh. The Saubers of Kamui Kobayashi and Nick Heidfeld were twelfth and thirteenth and Adrian Sutil was fourteenth. Vitaly Petrov had a bit of a spin but recovered to qualify fifteenth. The Russian will start five places further back after causing an accident of the start line in Suzuka a fortnight ago. The Toro Rossos will start sixteenth and seventeenth with Jaime Alguersuari out-qualifying teammate Sebastien Buemi.
Webber was first out of the pit lane for the pole-position shoot-out, followed closely by the two McLarens and the two Ferraris. Vettel followed a short time later.
Alonso was the first man to set a lap under 96 seconds with a 1:35.927 on his first flying lap of Q3. At the halfway point the top three was Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton. The front-runners then dived back into the pits for a new set of tyres.
In fact, Hamilton was in such a hurry to get to his garage that he used the most direct route from track to pit lane entry, avoiding the nice new tarmac of the pit lane. In reality, he lost the back end of his car over a bump, but luckily avoided hitting any of the walls.
Webber was first out on his new tyres, but his first flying lap could not challenge Alonso's fastest time. The Spaniard then improved with a 1:35.766 – a time Hamilton could not beat with his effort.
Vettel could though, setting a 1:35.585. Once again, the German pulled a fantastic qualifying lap out of the back in the dying moments of qualifying to take his ninth pole position of the season. Webber had time for a second flying lap in this final stint, and with that he jump up onto the front row.
Apparently there is a 60% chance of rain during tomorrow’s race but, even without a downpour, the first-ever Korean Grand Prix should be a fantastic spectacle.