Suzuka always provides red hot action, with today’s qualifying session being no exception to the rule, in more ways than one. Sebastian Vettel was the overwhelming favourite to claim another Pole Position, however, a fundamental KERS issue derailed his FP3 session and returned to haunt him in qualifying. With the German faltering, his rivals tried to capitalize, with Mark Webber snatching Pole away from his teammate – The first time that Mark has outperformed Sebastian on a Saturday all season. All is not lost for Vettel though, as a P2 starting position could well prove prosperous tomorrow.
Mark Webber’S opportunistic Pole Position did not come as a total surprise. The Aussie had displayed impressive pace yesterday and confirmed his speed in FP3. Webber is undoubtedly determined to make this weekend a successful one, suggesting that this is his best chance to claim his final victory before his departure to the WEC. Judging by his past performances on the modern Tilke tracks, this may well be the case, especially following today’s display.
While history will acknowledge Japan 2013 as Webber’s 12th career Pole, the Aussie admitted that the result could have been different, had his teammate not battled a KERS gremlin. “Sebastian had a problem so it’s a bit of a hollow pole position and he still did a phenomenal lap. But you’ve got to take them when you can and it’s not like they hand them out,” said a subdued Webber. “It was a bit of a mixed session in terms of predicting who was showing their hand but we did the laps when they counted and it’s very nice for me to have pole on my last attempt at Suzuka. It’s a real highlight.”
The threat of a poor launch is always a concern for Webber, irrespective of his position on the grid. With the usually fast-starting Sebastian alongside, the battle into turn one could still go either way. It is essential that Webber disrupts Vettel’s opening stint tomorrow if he is to mount a challenge. Sebastian’s long run performance was sublime on Friday – If the KERS issues can be resolved overnight, Vettel must still be considered as the favourite for the victory.
In regards to the mysterious KERS gremlin, Christian Horner explained; “It was unlucky for Sebastian. We had an issue with the KERS this morning, we changed as much as we could. The first session it failed in Q1, it came back in Q2, and then in Q3 it failed immediately. So both Sebastian’s laps in Q3 were without the KERS, so a great performance from him to get on the car on to the front-row.”
Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton recorded a solid 1:31.235 to snatch P3 on the grid. Hamilton appeared to improve performance throughout the session as he gathered more confidence, culminating in a strong Q3. While he was unable to split the Red Bull duo as he did last weekend, Hamilton was pleased overall. “I’m really happy,” he insisted. “The team did a great job so far this weekend and realistically it was difficult, or almost impossible to finish ahead of these Red Bull guys. They’ve had a much better package generally for a long, long time but we’ve come a long way and to be as close as we are I think is a huge compliment to the team. My car felt awesome so I can’t imagine how it felt for them. Congratulations to Mark, I’m looking forward to racing them tomorrow.” Lewis’ optimism for a positive Sunday may well be difficult to live up to. Both Mercedes have struggled significantly with degradation, with Lewis in particular only completing 8 laps on the medium compound tyre in FP1. This stint length will of course be extended tomorrow, as the green track and fuel loads will have contributed to the severity of the drop-off on Friday, yet the Silver Arrows will struggle to even match Red Bull’s stint length, let alone lap faster than them.
Further down the top ten, Romain Grosjean once again demonstrated his leadership credentials, out-qualifying teammate Kimi Raikkonen into P4. The Finn suffered another dismal Saturday, managing only P9. Meanwhile, Felipe Massa also attracted the attention of potential employers today, as he placed his Ferrari in a highly respectable P5.
However, in the adjacent garage, the mood was far from buoyant, as Fernando Alonso once again failed to extract the one lap potential from the F138, as he struggled to P8. The Spaniard was fortunate to even make it to the shoot-out after being just a tenth away from elimination in a close Q2 session. Alonso will certainly require another sublime start if he is to find himself back on the podium tomorrow. An uncharacteristically downbeat Alonso admitted; “The top five is maybe something realistic for us,” he said when asked to comment on his race aspirations. “We need to overtake a few cars. But we need to also race a little bit thinking in the Constructors’ Championship. We have Mercedes only one point behind, they are both in front of me so I need to finish at least in front of one of them.”
Sauber were another team who endured an action packed afternoon. Nico Hulkenberg qualified well to finish in P7, while Esteban Gutierrez did well to even make it into Q2. This was due to a terrifying vapour leak in the garage, which led to an isolated fire on the car. Esteban quickly jumped out of the cockpit while the team effectively dealt with the fire, which meant that the incident did not cost the team too much time. Esteban soon returned to the track without so much as a blemish to the paintwork on his car. While he proceeded into Q2, the pace evaded him in the second session as P14 was the best he could manage. “We put a good lap together and now I have to stay optimistic for tomorrow, as I think we have a good pace in the long runs. Points are not easy, but we will do our best,” the Mexican evaluated.
Also feeling the heat in Q1 was Jean Eric Vergne. The Frenchman suffered severe overheating over the rear brakes, similar to Daniel Ricciardo in Korea. However, communication complications meant that the problem escalated beyond control, as Vergne’s brakes caught fire. It was a dramatic incident and one which will concern the team. Moreover, due to the time at which the fire lasted, the engineers will be concerned about the condition of major components such as the engine and gearbox, which are positioned towards the rear of the car.
However, one of the stand-out performances of the day came courtesy of Max Chilton. The Marussia youngster exclaimed his confidence heading into the session, as the team had identified a good balance throughout Friday. This confidence was well placed, as the Brit managed to beat both Caterham’s as well as his teammate Jules Bianchi. “I’m so happy to have put us ahead of both Caterham’s in qualifying for the first time since China. One would have been a result, but to beat both Pic and Van Der Garde is really incredible and shows just how much fight there is in all of us at this crucial stage in the season,” he stated. “I gave it all I had and my lap was as good as I could have asked of myself. I’m just really looking forward to my first Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka and I hope we can carry the momentum through into the race tomorrow. Well done to all of us in the team.” Caterham’s day was not improved after the session, as Charles Pic received an unprecedented drive-through penalty for crossing the pit exit line whilst the red light was on. This is the first time in recent memory that a drive-through penalty has been awarded before a race has even begun.
1 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:30.915
2 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:31.089
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:31.253
4 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:31.365
5 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:31.378
6 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:31.397
7 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:31.644
8 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:31.665
9 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:31.684
10 Jenson Button McLaren 1:31.827
11 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:31.989
12 Paul di Resta Force India 1:31.992
13 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:32.013
14 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:32.063
15 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:32.093
16 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:32.485
17 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:32.890
18 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:33.357
19 Max Chilton Marussia 1:34.320
20 Charles Pic Caterham 1:34.556
21 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:34.879
22 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:34.958