HOCKENHEIM, Germany // Two thousandths of a second were all it took to lift the unusually subdued atmosphere. For most of yesterday's qualifying session, it looked as though Fernando Alonso might give Ferrari their first pole position of the 2010 Formula One season - but then Sebastian Vettel dug deep.
Hitherto quiet, and bemused by local favourite Michael Schumacher's latest indifferent qualifying performance, the Hockenheim crowd finally launched one of the klaxon symphonies for which it is famous. Vettel's 1min 13.791secs lap secured his third consecutive pole and a 10th of the campaign for Red Bull-Renault. But the German had a brief, nervous wait before realising he had done enough to narrowly beat Alonso.
Traditionally, circuits become faster as race weekends wear on, as more rubber is laid down. Vettel opted not to wait until the qualifying session's final moments to start his final run, however. "I wanted to make sure I had a clear track on my out lap," he said, "to prepare my tyres properly, without interference from other cars. Fernando was quicker than me on the first run in [the third qualifying session], so I knew I only had one shot at pole."
And that was enough. Just. "The lap could perhaps have been a little bit better," Vettel said. "It is very easy to overdrive, and to take the edge off the tyres, but in the end it was OK, even if the margin was almost nothing. There are no prizes for today, though, other than being able to go to sleep with a nice feeling inside. The hardest part has still to come." Teams' preparations have been hampered by unseasonally cool weather and frequent rain showers. Tyre supplier Bridgestone brought very different compounds to Hockenheim - hard and super-soft, representing opposite ends of the F1 tyre spectrum - and there were fears that the latter might wilt in the region's traditional mid-summer heat.
Those concerns have been allayed, however, and if conditions remain dry teams are likely to adopt a one-stop strategy. "The super-soft tyre is strong enough to do a reasonable stint," Vettel said, "and it won't really matter how many laps you do on the hard tyre because the wear rate is negligible. We could probably use it next weekend in Hungary, too." Alonso qualified on the front row for the first time this season - and his scant 0.002secs deficit was a matter of relief rather than frustration.
"We have often been half a second slower than Red Bull in Q3," he said, "so I'm very encouraged to be so close. We didn't expect to be quite so competitive at Silverstone two weeks ago because high-speed corners don't really suit us, so we knew we'd be in good shape when we came to circuits like this." Felipe Massa backed up his Ferrari teammate with a strong run to third. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Brazilian's accident in Budapest, when he sustained serious head injuries that forced him to miss the final eight races of 2009.
"I've been through some tough times," he said, "but right now I'm just thinking about doing a good job in this race." Mark Webber starts fourth for Red Bull, ahead of the McLarens of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, the championship leader. McLaren-Mercedes will race with a new exhaust-blown diffuser for the first time this weekend, but Hamilton was not surprised to be back on row three. "I didn't do a fantastic lap," he said, "and I have been saying for a while that we are only the third-fastest team at the moment."
Qualifying was briefly interrupted after Tonio Liuzzi lost control at the final turn and spun across the road into the pit wall. The Italian was unhurt, but the same could not be said of his Force India car. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org