F1: Vettel’s stunner eliminates all opposition in China qualifying

An eventful, exciting and unusual qualifying session saw Sebastian Vettel put in an astonishing laptime of 1:33.706s that wiped the floor with McLaren and everyone else who might have been feeling that they were inching they way back into contention with the reigning champion.

Red Bull also provided the other big shock of qualifying, but in a far less happy way for Mark Webber. Webber’s car was still being repaired from its electrical problems in early practice, and the team were unable to rescue the KERS system on the car leaving Webber with a deficit of some 0.35s per lap. Despite this the team were confident that they could get through to Q2 even sticking to the prime tyres in order to save the softer options for the subsequent rounds and for the race; but in the final moments of Q3 the teams further back down the running order started to switch to the options and the boost in sped was over 1s a lap, causing the relative driver positions to go into slot machine chaos. Webber was unable to find the pace and was finally ejected from Q2 by Pastor Maldonardo’s final flying run on softs.

Q2 also proved eventful, with Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button all safely sitting in the pits on unbeatable one-lap runs on options, but everyone else feeling nervous about suffering the same sort of last minute shock as Webber and heading back out on the track on softs. Nick Heidfeld was just taking to the track on his only qualifying lap of the session when his team mate Vitaly Petrov put in an excellent time to go fourth – only for his car to then die on him immediately afterwards, with problems in either the gearbox or hydraulics that left him stalled in the middle of the track in turn 5, resulting in a red flag with only 2:02 left to run in the session; Heidfeld didn’t get to complete his lap and had to come back into the pits, that set of options wasted.

Two minutes was borderline for cars to get out and start a flying lap before the chequered flag came out: not only did the contenders queue for over a minute in the pit lane, but once the track went green again there were astonishing scens on the out lap as the cars jockeyed and raced each other hard for position. In the end, the confused and busy conditions meant that the final runs mostly failed to change the standings as they had been prior to the red flag: the most significant development was that Nico Rosberg managed to push himself up into the top ten and into Q3 while his team mate Michael Schumacher failed and would have to start from 14th on the grid. Nick Heidfeld did manage to get his run in, but could only manage 16th after the disruption – there would be no repeat of the Renault’s stunning start at Malaysia here in Shanghai.

Heidfeld’s team mate Petrov was through to Q3 but – as the rules don’t allow a recovered car to take any further part in qualifying – he did not run in Q3 and will duly start in 10th position on the grid tomorrow.

Vettel supplied the only surprise of Q3 by coming out very early for his first fast lap, with Jenson Button, and proceeded to put in a sensational record time that had jaws audibly dropping up and down pit lane. Button’s time was over seven tenths off but still proved to be the best of the rest, as Lewis Hamilton’s late single flier failed to beat his team mate by 0.04s. Hamilton admitted afterwards that he had needed to compromise Q3 to an extent in order to get the tyre strategy right for the race itself: “We are in quite a strong position: the options I just qualified on, a new set of options and a new set of primes and a decent set of options as well,” Hamilton explained. “I just wanted to increase chances for the race because that is what counts.”

Nico Rosberg popped his Mercedes onto the second row of the grid alongside Hamilton pushing the two Ferraris onto the second row, while birthday boy Paul di Resta (25 today) split the two Toro Rossos of Jamie Alguersauri and Sebastien Buemi, who had emerged from the disrupted Q2 with an excellent result of putting both cars through into the final session.

Qualifying times and grid positions

Pos  Driver                Team         Time           Gap   
 1.  Sebastian Vettel      Red Bull     1:33.706s
 2.  Jenson Button         McLaren      1:34.421s  + 0.715
 3.  Lewis Hamilton        McLaren      1:34.463s  + 0.757
 4.  Nico Rosberg          Mercedes     1:34.670s  + 0.964
 5.  Fernando Alonso       Ferrari      1:35.119s  + 1.413
 6.  Felipe Massa          Ferrari      1:35.145s  + 1.439
 7.  Jaime Alguersuari     Toro Rosso   1:36.158s  + 2.452
 8.  Paul di Resta         Force India  1:36.190s  + 2.484
 9.  Sebastien Buemi       Toro Rosso   1:36.203s  + 2.497
10.  Vitaly Petrov         Renault      No time

Q2 cut-off time: 1:35.858s

11.  Adrian Sutil          Force India  1:35.874s  + 1.388
12.  Sergio Perez          Sauber       1:36.053s  + 1.567
13.  Kamui Kobayashi       Sauber       1:36.236s  + 1.750
14.  Michael Schumacher    Mercedes     1:36.457s  + 1.971
15.  Rubens Barrichello    Williams     1:36.465s  + 1.979
16.  Nick Heidfeld         Renault      1:36.611s  + 2.125
17.  Pastor Maldonado      Williams     1:36.956s  + 2.470

Q3 cut-off time: 1:36.147s

18. Mark Webber            Red Bull     1:36.468s  + 1.196
19. Heikki Kovalainen      Lotus        1:37.894s  + 2.622
20. Jarno Trulli           Lotus        1:38.318s  + 3.046
21. Jerome D'Ambrosio      Virgin       1:39.119s  + 3.847
22. Timo Glock             Virgin       1:39.708s  + 4.436
23. Tonio Liuzzi           HRT          1:40.212s  + 4.940
24. Narain Karthikeyan     HRT          1:40.445s  + 5.173

107% time: 1:41.941s
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