x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Red Bull's Webber takes surprise pole at Korean Grand Prix

Vettel joins his teammate to take front row on the grid with Hamilton and Alonso behind.

Red Bull drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel wave to the crowd after the qualifying session in Yeongam.
Red Bull drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel wave to the crowd after the qualifying session in Yeongam.

MOKPO, South Korea // Be it a python on the track in 2010 or year-old rotten food found in team hospitality fridges in 2011, Korea has a habit of throwing up the odd surprise. Yesterday, in front of a sparse crowd, it was Mark Webber who provided the unexpected twist.

The Australian driver will start today's Korean Grand Prix from pole position after setting the fastest qualifying lap ahead of his Sebastian Vettel, his Red Bull Racing teammate who had appeared nailed-on for pole.

Webber led the reigning world champion by 0.074 seconds, while Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes finished third quickest.

Vettel, who took pole last week in Japan and has won the past two races, had appeared certain to start at the front of the grid for the 35th time after proving quickest in the second and third practice sessions in Yeongam, as well as setting the pace during the first two parts of qualifying.

Even in the final top-10 shoot-out, it was the German who led the way.

Yet Webber had other plans. The 36 year old, on his final flying lap, clocked 1 min 37.242 secs to earn his first pole of the season.

"I am very, very happy to get the job done and get the pole position," Webber said.

"It was a reasonable lap and we did it when it counted obviously. That's what qualifying's all about. It's been a tricky last few events for me, but really happy to start on pole. Raceday is the main day and we're in a good position to get a result."

Webber has in fact started on pole this season once before when, in Monaco, he inherited the front position on the grid after Michael Schumacher, who was fastest in qualifying, was handed a grid-penalty.

On that afternoon in Monte Carlo, Webber secured his first win of the season.

Although Red Bull locked out the front row for the second weekend in succession, Vettel was left frustrated after being forced to back off Ferrari's Felipe Massa on his final lap.

The two-time world champion is chasing a third successive title, but while his expectations are for ever kept to himself, his exasperation yesterday threatened to spill over as he snapped at his radio engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin.

"Why did you not tell me about Massa?" he said angrily over the team radio. "What was I supposed to say? He was on a timed lap; a green time," replied Rocquelin.

Vettel had calmed down sufficiently by the time he emerged from parc ferme to accept that "if anything, it was my mistake", but last year's winner will also have taken comfort from the knowledge no driver who has started on pole at the Korean International Circuit has gone on to win the race.

Additionally, Webber's conversion record does not read as imposing as the Australian would desire with only four wins from 10 poles. And - whisper it - but there are few people Vettel would rather have ahead of him as he looks to eradicate Alonso's four-point advantage in the fight for the championship than a teammate who could be asked to move aside and let him pass.

Whether, of course, Webber would be obliging remains to be seen.

Such a scenario would require Webber leading Vettel late in the contest, but the latter has little intention of letting it get to such a stage.

"Last year, we made a good launch and here you never know what might happen," said Vettel, who won from behind Hamilton in 2011 and trails Alonso by four points in the championship standings.

"There's a long straight after the second corner. Obviously, I had a tight battle with Lewis last year and, these things, you have to take them as they come. It's difficult to know now what's going to happen, but first of all I will focus on the start and then go from there."

Hamilton is not entirely out of this championship fight either and could prove the biggest benefactor were Webber and Vettel to square-off. Following behind the Red Bulls, the Englishman believes he has the pace to cause them problems, although is under no illusions of the task at hand.

"It will be very tough to get ahead of them, but we've put ourselves in as good a position as we could," he said. "These guys have clearly made quite a big step within the last two races and so we've just got to keep pushing. We're not far off ."

The 2008 world champion would be the first to admit anything other than a Red Bull victory would be a major shock. But, in Korea at least, surprises are what F1 is accustomed to.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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