ABU DHABI // It may or may not have been a mere mirage under a setting Middle Eastern sun, but Sebastian Vettel appeared to make – whisper it – a mistake on Saturday during qualifying for today’s Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Formula One’s previously infallible four-time world champion had shown the pace to cement his fifth pole in six races under the floodlights at Yas Marina Circuit.
He made, however, an uncharacteristic error at the start of his final flying lap and was usurped atop the time sheets by Mark Webber, his Red Bull Racing teammate.
It was a minuscule mistake, but minuscule margins are precisely what F1 drivers deal in. Webber finished 0.18 seconds ahead of Vettel after nailing as close to a perfect lap as he could have hoped for in what is his last race weekend in Abu Dhabi.
The Australian, 38, is retiring from F1 next month to race Porsche sports cars and is understandably keen to bow out with a race win. He has stood on the top step of the podium at least once every season since 2009, although Abu Dhabi has never served him particularly well.
Always forthright, Webber has been critical of the 5.55km circuit in the past. Last night, he had no complaints.
“It’s probably no super secret that I like the more flowing circuits, but you have to put your head down and get on with these types of circuits – Singapore and Abu Dhabi – and do the absolute maximum,” he said.
“When I started in Formula One, there was not a huge amount of circuits around like this, but there are more and more now and that’s part of our job. Unfortunately – or fortunately – I have a guy in the other car who is pretty handy on these type of tracks.”
Vettel apologised over the Red Bull team radio following his error, acknowledging he “had it in my hands” but “lost it at Turn 1”.
The German, 26, who has a frosty relationship with Webber, was mature enough to accept his teammate deserved his 13th career pole. He knows he will now need to pass him if he is to claim the seventh consecutive win that he is chasing this weekend.
“As a driver, you always argue that there’s a little bit here, a little bit there,” Vettel said.
“But the bottom line is that if you look at it from the outside, if you push yourself to the maximum trying to get everything out then you do mistakes as well.
“I’m not very proud of that, but I did what I could and it wasn’t enough. Mark deserved to be on pole, no doubt.”
Webber has suffered much misfortune in recent races and the omens for the pole-sitter this afternoon are not great.
In four previous races here, only once has the driver at the front of the grid converted pole. That occurred in 2010, when a certain young man from Germany won his first drivers’ championship.
Three years later and Vettel’s reputation is such that even from second he remains the favourite.
And when he appears to make a mistake, a Middle East mirage is a feasible first-thought.
5pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 2 & 6