Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel snatched pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix in thrilling fashion on Saturday as he closed in on a historic second consecutive world title.
The German, winner of the last two races at Suzuka, scorched round the challenging lay-out to take his 12th pole of the season with a qualifying time of 1min 30.466sec, edging Briton Jenson Button of McLaren by just 0.009sec.
Vettel (24), who crashed on Friday and trailed Button in all three practice sessions, needs to finish just 10th or better in Japan to become the youngest Formula One driver to win back-to-back world titles.
Vettel can also clinch the championship if Button doesn’t win Sunday’s race.
Lewis Hamilton meanwhile found himself at the heart of more controversy after he claimed Michael Schumacher’s driving was “dangerous” and “ridiculous” following a near collision between the pair at the end of qualifying.
And in late drama, home favourite Kamui Kobayashi of Sauber was bumped up three places to seventh on the grid due to a technicality.
Vettel’s pole was the 27th of his career, and maintained Red Bull’s perfect 2011 record with a 15th pole in as many races this season.
He was ecstatic to bounce back from a difficult start to the weekend after his crash in the final minute of the opening practice session on Friday.
“Yesterday [Friday] I went off in practice and damaged the car and I didn’t have the afternoon to prepare the car for today [Saturday],” Vettel said.
“We sat down after the practice session this morning and tried to put everything together, and we were able to get every single thing out of the car, which is crucial.
“It was a hard qualifying but I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a long lap … and I had a bit of a wobble in sector one. But then I made up for it in the second sector. All in all, it’s fantastic.”
Vettel, who started his final qualifying lap in provisional third place, recovered from a ragged first sector to edge ahead of McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton’s leading time in the second section of his last-gasp run.
The German then ran wide at turn 14 but recovered superbly through the 300km/h turn 15 to take top spot.
Button crossed the line an agonising nine one-thousandths of a second adrift, narrowly missing his first pole for McLaren and his first since the Monaco Grand Prix of 2009 for Brawn GP.
Button was disappointed to miss out by such a tiny margin after topping the timesheets in all three practice sessions ahead of the top-10 shoot-out for first place on the grid.
“I’m disappointed to be so close and not get the pole but it’s been a good weekend for us, and I hope that it continues tomorrow,” he said.
“Sebastian’s going to win the championship this weekend, but my aim is to beat him in the race.”
Button’s McLaren team-mate Hamilton was third after failing to complete a second final flying lap in the dying stages of qualifying, while Brazilian Felipe Massa was fourth ahead of fellow Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton led the times after the drivers completed their first laps of the third and final part of qualifying, but didn’t start a second lap before the chequered flag was waved after an incident with Australian Mark Webber of Red Bull and Schumacher of Mercedes.
“Mark out of nowhere shot up the inside and nearly crashed with me, so I had to avoid him,” the Briton said.
“Michael was on the outside trying to do something — I don’t know what the hell he was doing — and went off onto the grass. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever experienced at the beginning of qualifying.
“It was quite dangerous.”
Seven-time world champion Schumacher said Hamilton had pushed him onto the grass as the trio prepared for their final lap.
“I made it through, but it was a bit of an awkward start of a qualifying lap,” the German added.
Webber was sixth for Red Bull, 0.69sec slower than team-mate Vettel.
Sauber’s Kobayashi was one of four drivers not to set a flying lap time in the final session of qualifying.
But because he was the only one of the four to have embarked on a flying lap, which he aborted, he was promoted to seventh on the grid after being provisionally listed as 10th.
As a result Schumacher and Renault teammates Bruno Senna of Brazil and Vitaly Petrov of Russia, the other drivers who failed to post a time, each dropped down a place on the grid.
Before the top-10 shoot-out, both entries from Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso were eliminated in the second 15-minute period of qualifying. German Nico Rosberg of Mercedes was a shock elimination in the first 20-minute period of qualifying after failing to record a timed lap because of a hydraulics failure.
It was the first time in 15 races this season that the German failed to reach the top 10, and leaves him starting Sunday’s race from 23rd position. — Sapa, AFP