SEPANG // Sebastian Vettel snared his second successive pole position of the season on Saturday, but the action immediately behind him between the two Ferraris may yet prove the most engrossing battle at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Red Bull Racing’s three-time world champion proved almost a second quicker than the rest of the field in wet conditions at Sepang as he claimed his 48th career pole.
As the German discovered last week in Australia, however, how he manages his strategy is likely to prove more important than his raw race pace.
When the lights go out this afternoon, Vettel will start alongside Felipe Massa.
The Brazilian, so often labelled beleaguered, is blossoming this year with an early season car that he feels comfortable and confident driving.
The 31 year old out-qualified Fernando Alonso, his teammate, for the fourth successive race.
“I feel very happy, very comfortable driving the car,” said Massa, who is without a race win since the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix.
“I like the car that we have this year much more compared to the car we had last year.
“I think I understand a lot more the direction for the set-up and everything.”
Massa struggled for much of last year, but finished the season strongly, finishing on the podium twice in the final six races.
His potential, however, was limited as Alonso chased race victories and in Korea the Brazilian was ordered to back off his teammate, despite being in a quicker car.
A month later in Austin, Texas, Ferrari deliberately broke the seal on Massa’s engine to incur a grid penalty that moved Alonso up the starting order.
“It was really clear that I was not comfortable last year and the year before, so many things around the car, bad luck, around myself as well,” Massa said.
“There were so many things that were not working in the proper direction, but now they are and I know how quick I can be. I’ve showed that many times in the past.”
Massa came within seconds of winning the world title in 2008, but Alonso has been the indisputable No 1 driver at the Italian manufacturers since joining from Renault in 2010.
Massa’s much-improved performances will test the two teammates’ relationship and could potentially provide Ferrari with a headache.
When Massa was asked about coming out on top in recent qualifying session head-to-heads, Alonso stared straight ahead with a slim smile.
The Spaniard looked set to start on pole here after setting the fastest time on his final lap of qualifying, but Vettel immediately usurped it and Massa, last over the line, bumped his teammate down one more place by clocking a lap 0.14 second quicker.
The two-time world champion said the added in-team competition is nothing new.
“I’ve been racing 27 years now in motor racing – I’m getting old – so it’s not the first time that we have very close competition,” Alonso, also 31, said, adding that Massa had struggled the past three seasons with “bad luck, some incidents and some mechanical problems”.
“This year it is maybe a little bit closer and for sure the last two races we are behind on the grid, but so far on Saturday there are no points, so we need to keep working for Sunday.
“We will push each other to our own limits and this is good news for the team.”
Vettel, whose relationship with his older, more experienced teammate Mark Webber is so often the focus of scrutiny, is remaining cautious today after failing to convert pole into a victory last week in Melbourne.
The 25 year old is acutely aware of the dangers of Pirelli’s quick-wearing tyres and knows managing his rubbers and pit stops will be the pivotal factor if he is to secure his first win since India last October.
“Managing the tyres will be crucial and then we go from there,” he said.
“We have to go with the conditions and fortunately they’re not in our hands. It’s very exciting for us, finding the right lap to make the call to come in or stay out.
“We’ve seen in the past that sometimes you are just on the spot, sometimes you are not, so it can make a big difference to the race.”
Kimi Raikkonen, who secured a surprise win at Albert Park last week after running a perfect tyre strategy, will start from 10th after being given a three-place grid penalty for impeding Mercedes-GP’s Nico Rosberg.
“I don’t think we could have found much more time in the wet,” Lotus’s Finnish driver said.
“For sure, I wanted more, but it is what it is and I hope we’ll do better in the race. It’s obviously disappointing to lose three places on the grid, but we’ll have to see what happens.”