Sebastian Vettel maintained his 100% pole position record at Suzuka with a dominant performance on Saturday. The world champion wasn’t seriously threatened in Q2 or Q3 and claimed his 34th career pole by a quarter of a second from Red Bull teammate Mark Webber with Jenson Button, the recipient of a five-place grid penalty, third quickest.
The writing appeared to be on the wall for Vettel’s rivals when he clocked a 1:31.501 in Q2, comfortably quicker than either McLaren could manage, but his first run in Q3 left the whole field trailing. Kimi Raikkonen had set the benchmark seconds earlier with a 1:32.208 but Vettel blew it away with a 1:30.839 while Webber was unable to join him in the 1:30s. Button also came up short with a 1:31.290 while Lewis Hamilton came in a second slower than his teammate, slotting in behind Raikkonen.
Kimi would settle the argument as far as pole position was concerned with a spin at Spoon on his final effort, momentarily beaching his Lotus in the gravel. The subsequent yellow flags prevented the following drivers from improving or at least, it should’ve done. Kamui Kobayashi climbed up to fourth to the delight of the home crowd despite passing the stationary Lotus midway through his lap.
Both Red Bulls were forced to back off but as it turned out, a front row lock-out was secure anyway. Button had the benefit of a clear second run once Raikkonen had escaped the gravel trap but couldn’t improve on third although Romain Grosjean did find time, taking fifth between the Saubers of Kobayashi and Sergio Perez.
Ferrari’s fears of an uncompetitive afternoon were realised with Fernando Alonso down in seventh, although he was another to lose out in the dying seconds. Raikkonen’s spin cost him dearly as he slipped to eighth while Lewis Hamilton’s poor first run left him stranded in ninth. Nico Hulkenberg was the final driver in Q3 but the morning crash left a gearbox change inevitable, ensuring he will drop to fifteenth.
Felipe Massa will move up to tenth as a result but that will be scant consolation for another Q2 elimination. Paul Di Resta was also knocked out, partly down to traffic at the final chicane, while a simple lack of pace cost Mercedes a place in Q3. Michael Schumacher was thirteenth ahead of Pastor Maldonado and Nico Rosberg but the ten-place penalty carried over from Singapore will drop Michael to the back row. As a result, the two Toro Rossos will each move up a spot but Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne will be disappointed to have been the slowest drivers in Q2.
Compounding a miserable day for Williams, Bruno Senna was the big name to drop out in Q1 but there were certainly mitigating circumstances for the Brazilian who had his nose chopped off by Vergne’s Toro Rosso at the final chicane. The incident was referred to the stewards but that didn’t alter Senna’s fate and he joined Caterham, Marussia and HRT in the drop zone. Heikki Kovalainen won the battle of the bottom six ahead of Timo Glock while Pedro de la Rosa excelled to qualify his HRT ahead of Charles Pic, Vitaly Petrov and Narain Karthikeyan.