Such has been the speed of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing that they had to engineer their own drama during Saturday’s qualifying session for Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix.
Fastest in practice on Friday and quickest in final practice Saturday afternoon, the question appeared to be by what margin the German would take pole position, rather than if he would grab it.
True to form, the defending world champion charged to the top of the timesheets in the final part of qualifying with a lap of 1 minute, 42.841 seconds around the Marina Bay track on the first of his two planned runs.
All well and good as he was six-tenths quicker than second-place Nico Rosberg. But as the other cars in the top 10 headed out for their final run, Vettel got out of his car.
The three-time champion took his helmet off and became a spectator, watching Rosberg, Red Bull teammate Mark Webber and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso all aim to improve on their time.
Red Bull and Vettel’s gamble was all to do with strengthening their race prospects even further.
Current F1 regulations dictate that in a dry qualifying session, the top 10 must start the actual race on the same set of tyres used for qualifying. By running only three laps, Vettel will have considerably fresher Pirellis on his car today for the race start than his rivals.
Now, all he had to do was wait and see if the qualifying mark would hold up.
The German had a fright as Webber was quicker initially in the second Red Bull, while Rosberg was faster in the first two sectors of the lap.
But neither driver was able to maintain their speed in the final twists and turns, and Vettel held on, though Rosberg’s deficit of just 0.091 seconds was a little close for comfort.
Of the experience, Vettel said: “I was watching the sectors times closely. Mark started with a purple [fastest] sector and Nico and Romain then had a purple sector, but fortunately my last sector was strong enough.
“It was a great feeing, I’m very happy with the result. The car has been phenomenal all weekend.”
Such is the speed advantage of the Red Bull in Vettel’s hands that it was a risk they alone could take.
Track position is critical in Singapore. Overtaking is possible on the track, but is not easy, so being out front is a big advantage.
Pole position gives Vettel the chance to repeat his dominant wins in Belgium and Italy, but the team were ready to risk possibly being overhauled to give themselves the optimum race strategy.
They felt they had done enough to take pole, but were confident enough that they could still win, even if they were overhauled.
Rosberg was disappointed not to have caught the triple world champion on his final flying lap, but still delighted with his overall performance.
“It was very close and it was a pity because one-tenth more and it would have been possible, but second is still a good result and gives us a good position to start the race tomorrow,” the German said.
“We are confident about our race pace, so I think a great result is possible.”
Like Red Bull and Mercedes, Lotus have a car that suits the rigours of high-downforce tracks like Singapore, and despite teammate Kimi Raikkonen nursing a bad back and managing only 13th on the grid, Romain Grosjean caused a surprise by qualifying third, demoting Webber a spot in the final seconds of the session.
“The car has been OK today and if we look at the number of laps we have done this weekend, it is not too bad,” the Frenchman said.
“The team made a good decision for the strategy and it is good to be in the front for this grand prix.”
Webber, who has been beaten by Vettel in every qualifying session this season, said he was not surprised to have been beaten by his teammate again.
“I didn’t think I was going to challenge him for pole,” the Australian said. “Seb’s pretty much owned the last sector on the options [soft tyres] the whole weekend. He’s been very, very strong.”