Webber storms to first pole of the season at Suzuka

Mark Webber was in supreme form in Suzuka as he beat his Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel to take his first pole position of the season, on his final appearance at the historic Japanese race track. It is the Australian’s first pole position since the Korean Grand Prix in 2012, as well as being the first time that he has out-qualified his team-mate in 2013.

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The silence around Suzuka was shattered by the howl of the Ferrari engine in the back of Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber, as the Mexican became the first man out on circuit during Q1. He was soon joined on track by Paul di Resta’s Force India and the Caterham of Charles Pic, with the Mexican setting an early benchmark time of 1:35.547.

It was not long before the Suzuka circuit began to busy, with a stream of cars heading onto the track with around five minutes of the session gone. Jenson Button, the Lotus duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean and then Nico Hulkenberg all usurped Gutierrez’s initial time, which was found to have been a poor one.

The two Red Bull, the McLaren’s and the Ferrari pair all stayed in the pits in the early period of the session, which was marked by a small panic in the Sauber garage as Gutierrez’s car shot out a jet of flame from its exhausts, which was quickly extinguished. The 22-year-old, whose future in Formula One remains uncertain, managed to return to the track later in the session for another run which was good enough to see him into Q2.

Fernando Alonso set the first real benchmark time of Q1 for Ferrari, with a lap of 1:32.371 with ten minutes gone. He was soon joined by the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and the Lotus of Romian Grosjean at the top of the timesheets. The top five drivers separated by just three tenths of a second at the midpoint of the first qualifying session.

Red Bull showed extreme confidence once again as they opted for just a single run late in Q1. Sebastian Vettel’s initial lap on the prime tyres was good enough for third, before Mark Webber trumped his team-mate with a laptime of 1:32.271, good enough for first. Webber and Vettel would ultimately finish fourth and ninth after opting to stay in the garage, rather than returning to the circuit for a second run.

There was a late drama in Q1 as Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso caused a red flag situation after the rear brakes on the STR8 set aflame as the Frenchman slowed for the chicane. Vergne quickly brought his car to a halt at the side of the track, where the Japanese marshals expertly pounced on the smoking Toro Rosso with fire extinguishers, averting any danger. The session restarted with just two minutes and fifty five seconds remaining on the clock, time enough for one last shot to make it into the top 16 and into Q2.

However, there were no real surprises in the remaining minutes as Adrian Sutil and Jean-Eric Vergne joined the usual suspects of Max Chilton, Charles Pic, Giedo van der Garde and Jules Bianchi in the bottom six. The most notable point was that Max Chilton outqualified his highly rated team-mate Jules Bianchi on merit for the first time in 2013.

Paul di Resta got the second period of Saturday’s qualifying session under way, setting a modest lap of 1:33.059 in the early minutes of the session, before the Lotus pair of Raikkonenn and Grosjean jumped to the top of the timesheets, the Finn just five hundredths up on the Frenchman.

Lewis Hamilton became the first man to improve on the Lotus’ initial benchmark, but Fernando Alonso almost instantly demoted the 2008 champion with a lap of 1:31.828, some three hundredths of a second quicker than the Briton had managed.

Sebastian Vettel then shattered any illusions that he was on the backfoot having missed the qualifying simulation period at the end of free practice three, by setting a ominously quick lap of 1:31.290. Mark Webber went second overall, but was some three tenths off of the German which was worrying for top ten shoot-out.

Romain Grosjean, who had progressed to Q2 using just the prime tyres, bolted on a set of the medium compound Pirelli’s with just four minutes of the session remaining which put him into third, which easily saw the 27-year-old though into Q3.

Future Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo spent most of the session stuck in the garage, while his Toro Rosso team conducted crucial checks on his car to make sure there would be no repeat of his team-mates earlier brake failure The Australian came out for his single run with just two minutes of the session remaining and would ultimately be knocked out of qualifying, with his time of 1:32:485 the slowest in Q2, putting him 16th on the grid.

The battle to get into the top 10 was a frantic one as the majority of the field battled it out on circuit. Nico Hulkenberg and Felipe Massa both managed to get through into Q3 at the expense of McLaren’s Sergio Perez and the Force India of Paul di Resta. They would join Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, the two Red Bull’s, the Lotus duo and both Mercedes cars in the final ten minute session which would decide the top ten places on the grid for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.

Perez and di Resta shared the fate of Valteri Bottas, Esteban Gutierrez, Pastor Maldonando and Daniel Ricciardo, who were all ultimately knocked out in Q2 and would play no further part in qualifying.

As Q3 commenced Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Button, Grosjean and Hamilton all headed out early with the intention of completing two runs during Q3, while those others who had also made it through would go for just a single timed run at the close of the session to conserve tyres.

Formula One fans around the world released a collective gasp of excitement on Sebastian Vettel’s outlap as his race engineer Rocky informed him via team radio that his KERs had failed. Was the stage set for someone to beat Sebastian Vettel to pole position for the first time since the Belgian Grand Prix?

However, despite his KERs issue, Vettel was still quick enough to go second with the first round of laps completed, ahead of both Alonso and Hamilton. But it was Mark Webber who stepped up to the plate as he snatched provisional pole for the Japanese Grand Prix with a lap time of 1:30.975.

As the clock counted down to signal the final moments of Q3, you could feel the tension in the air as Sebastian Vettel led a stream of cars out on track with just a single run remaining to decide who would start from pole position. Vettel’s KERs was back up and running and as the German supremo lit up the timing screens with a purple first sector it seemed that a fifth consecutive pole position in Suzuka was beckoning for the triple world champion.

But no, a 1:31.089 was not good enough, Vettel had failed to improve on his position, staying second. Webber managed to eke out out a final improvement on his original time with a lap of 1:30.915, but there were still more drivers on track who could improve.

Fortunately for the Australian, nobody could improve on his fastest lap, handing Webber his first pole position of 2013, as well as being the first time that he has out qualified Vettel this season. A fitting gift for the 37-year-old, who is competing in his final Japanese Grand Prix this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton will line up behind the two Red Bull’s in third and will be joined on the second row by Romain Grosjean. Felipe Massa will start fifth, outqualifiying his team-mate Alonso who has looked off-colour all weekend. The Spaniard could do no better than eight fastest and will have his future Ferrari stable-mate Kimi Raikkonen behind him in ninth on the grid. 2011 Suzuka winner Jenson Button rounds out the top 10 for McLaren.

Qualifying – Provisional Classification:

1. Mark Webber           Red Bull-Renault     1:30.915

2. Sebastian Vettel      Red Bull-Renault     1:31.089  +0.174s

3. Lewis Hamilton        Mercedes             1:31.253  +0.338s

4. Romain Grosjean       Lotus-Renault        1:31.365  +0.450s

5. Felipe Massa          Ferrari              1:31.378  +0.463s

6. Nico Rosberg          Mercedes             1:31.397  +0.482s

7. Nico Hulkenberg       Sauber-Ferrari       1:31.644  +0.729s

8. Fernando Alonso       Ferrari              1:31.665  +0.750s

9. Kimi Raikkonen        Lotus-Renault        1:31.684  +0.769s

10. Jenson Button         McLaren-Mercedes     1:31.827  +0.912s

11. Sergio Perez          McLaren-Mercedes     1:31.989  +0.699s

12. Paul di Resta         Force India-Mercedes 1:31.992  +0.702s

13. Valtteri Bottas       Williams-Renault     1:32.013  +0.723s

14. Esteban Gutierrez     Sauber-Ferrari       1:32.063  +0.773s

15. Pastor Maldonado      Williams-Renault     1:32.093  +0.803s

16. Daniel Ricciardo      Toro Rosso-Ferrari   1:32.485  +1.195s

17. Adrian Sutil          Force India-Mercedes 1:32.890  +1.066s

18. Jean-Eric Vergne      Toro Rosso-Ferrari   1:33.357  +1.533s

19. Max Chilton           Marussia-Cosworth    1:34.320  +2.496s

20. Charles Pic           Caterham-Renault     1:34.556  +2.732s

21. Giedo van der Garde   Caterham-Renault     1:34.879  +3.055s

22. Jules Bianchi         Marussia-Cosworth    1:34.958  +3.134s

Image courtesy of Pirelli Media

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