x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel takes pole position for Japanese Grand Prix

German hails 'nearly perfect' qualifying session as he takes his fourth-straight pole at Suzuka.

Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, centre, celebrates after taking pole position in qualifying for the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix, with teammate Mark Webber, left, who came in second and third placed McLaren driver Jenson Button, who qualified third but will start in eighth due to a grid penalty. Greg Baker / AP Photo
Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, centre, celebrates after taking pole position in qualifying for the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix, with teammate Mark Webber, left, who came in second and third placed McLaren driver Jenson Button, who qualified third but will start in eighth due to a grid penalty. Greg Baker / AP Photo

SUZUKA, JAPAN // The Red Bull is ready to charge. Sebastian Vettel secured his fourth pole position in as many years at Suzuka yesterday to become, at age 25, the third most successful qualifier in the history of Formula One racing.

Yet it is the impact the German’s imperious performance could have on his tilt for the world championship that will likely excite him more as he hunts down Fernando Alonso in the driver standings.

Vettel, who now has 33 pole positions and a qualifying record bettered only by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, is finding form and fortune at the most opportune moment.

In Singapore, two weeks ago, he benefited from Lewis Hamilton’s forced retirement to take only a second win of the season.

Yesterday, having set a blistering fastest lap early in the final session of qualifying, the reigning world champion benefited again as yellow flags forced the chasing pack to slow down during their final flying laps, resulting in a mixed up grid.

“I’m very, very happy with the result,” Vettel said, after finishing 0.251 seconds ahead of teammate Mark Webber, proving Red Bull's ominous pace is back.

“We had a very smooth qualifying, nearly perfect, so we couldn’t really ask for more. The car felt fantastic from the start and we seem to get it better every time we go out. Now, obviously, we hope for a very good race.”

After a tough few weeks for Webber, the Australian looked back to the kind of form that saw him win the British Grand Prix in July. He was quicker than his teammate through the first sector on his fastest lap and called the result “a great tonic”, stressing the importance of having the car on the front row as the business end of the season approaches.

“We’ve had a rough run with qualifying of late, particularly my side with penalties and bits and bobs,” he said. “It just makes the race much more difficult: you have to start doing wacky strategies and stuff like that.”

The prospect of a third successive drivers’ championship for Vettel is growing.

While Webber looked impressive, the sport’s youngest race winner never looked like being usurped at the top of the timesheets, even had Kimi Raikkonen not spun his Lotus late in the session.

The performance was as dominant as has been seen all season and ended a run of four straight pole positions for McLaren-Mercedes, whose two drivers had mixed fortunes.

Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton will start today’s race in eighth and ninth as Button, who finished third, serves a five-place grid penalty and his teammate at the English marque endured what he called “one of the most disappointing qualifying sessions of the year”.

“Jenson showed that the car itself is quite good and our long-run pace wasn’t bad, so you never know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be a struggle,” said Hamilton, whose own challenge for the championship would take a severe blow were he to fail to finish on this afternoon’s podium.

Conversely, Vettel will have smiled gleefully when he saw his two closest championship challengers – Alonso and Raikkonen – finish seventh and eighth, and will feel confident of closing the 29 point gap to the top of the standings.

“We’ve seen a lot of races this year where probably we expected something, and people expected something, other teams had expectations, but the last 10 laps everything turned around,’ Vettel said. “We have to stay focused and see what we get from start to finish.”

Indeed, a few weeks ago, Alonso looked in total control of this championship. However, a retirement in Belgium and consecutive third place finishes at Monza and Singapore have weakened the Spaniard’s position considerably.

“What can I say, other than get angry about being unlucky?” the Ferrari driver said of the yellow flags.

“They came at the worst possible moment – when I was coming into Turn 14. Up until then, my lap was great and there was every chance of setting the fourth fastest time of the day, which would have then seen me start from third on the grid.”

Instead he will now start from sixth and Kamui Kobayashi, the Japanese driver with Sauber, will reap the benefits of Button’s demotion. Kobayashi, competing in his home grand prix, said he felt he had achieved ‘the maximum possible”.

“It would be a dream come true if I could achieve my first podium in Formula One in front of my home crowd,” the Japanese driver added.

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