YEONGAM, SOUTH KOREA // The inaugural Korean Grand Prix did not start smoothly for Sebastian Vettel, but his limited preparations were not apparent during the crucial qualifying hour.
The German conjured a 1min 35.585secs lap to pip Mark Webber, his Red Bull-Renault teammate, to pole position, with Fernando Alonso's Ferrari in third. The margin between the top three drivers in the Formula One world championship? Just 0.181sec.
Vettel was compromised by a Friday afternoon puncture that obliged him to switch from hard to soft tyres before conditions were suitable.
On a new circuit that had never previously been used for any type of racing, conditions were particularly dusty and slippery - and the softer, more fragile tyre was the last thing Vettel needed when cars were sliding around so much. He then missed part of yesterday's final free practice, to minimise engine wear at a critical phase of the season.
"I have felt more and more comfortable as the weekend has gone on," Vettel said. "Even so, it is quite hard to understand the best approach at certain corners, because there are some awkward cambers and it would be very easy to make a mistake. My reduced running made it difficult to settle into a rhythm, so it was important to stay focused."
Vettel and Webber adopted different strategies - the German taking enough fuel for a single lap at the end of qualifying, while the Australian plumped for a heavier car and two laps. "During my first run," Webber said. "I didn't feel very comfortable over one lap with the soft tyre, so we decided to try something different. I don't think it was a bad tactic - my second lap was my fastest, but it was just wasn't quite enough."
The Australian took a fresh engine before qualifying - the last of his eight-strong allocation for the season - so he is now in the same situation as Vettel: both will have to juggle previously used units for the balance of the campaign.
Rain is forecast for this morning - and that could be a precious ally for Webber. The track is still very dirty off the racing line, where he will be starting, and teams estimate that lining up on the cleaner side of the track could be worth an extra 20 metres, rather than the usual eight, on the run to the first corner. A little rain would wash away some of the freshly laid rubber, however, and reduce that disadvantage.
Alonso, just behind, will clearly be a major threat - although, critically, the Red Bulls are fractionally quicker than the Ferraris through the speed traps and well equipped to defend on the approach to the likely overtaking spots, at Turns One and Three.
Nico Rosberg, the Mercedes driver, could, though, be a potential thorn in the side of all. The German qualified fifth, one second behind Vettel, but he starts on the clean side of the track - and was quickest of all through the speed trap yesterday (at 320kph, 5kph up on Vettel). If he gets a decent start, he might be close enough to make a nuisance of himself on the opening lap.
Rosberg escaped without penalty after impeding Alonso during the session: the stewards ruled that the German had done his best to keep out of the way. His teammate Michael Schumacher was reprimanded for blocking Williams driver Rubens Barrichello, but has not been penalised and keeps ninth place.
Lewis Hamilton starts fourth - but it was not a particularly good day for the Englishman or Jenson Button, his seventh-placed McLaren Mercedes teammate. The pair are very much outsiders in the title race.
"We were quick in practice," Hamilton said, "so I don't know where the Red Bulls found that extra half second."
10am, Abu Dhabi Sports 2 & 6