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â€˘ Red Bull driver ahead of Lewis Hamilton on Valencia grid
â€˘ Vettel joins Jim Clarke and Alain Prost on 33 top spots
Sebastian Vettel, who has a keen sense of history, will appreciate the significance of his 33rd pole position for the European Grand Prix. For, at the age of 24, his achievement places him alongside two of the great champions, Jim Clark and Alain Prost.
His third pole in a row gives the Red Bull driver an excellent chance of making it a hat-trick of victories at this street circuit. He will start ahead of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and the Williams of Pastor Maldonado, whose third was arguably the performance of the day. Maldonado seems to enjoy Spain, having won in Barcelona, though he has had a couple of miserable races since then.
Hamilton was not penalised despite a complaint from Mercedes that he held up Nico Rosberg by driving unnecessarily slowly towards the end of a lap in Q3.
Behind the front three come the Lotus pair of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen, followed by Nico Rosberg in his Mercedes. But it was another disappointing day for Jenson Button, who will be ninth on Sunday’s grid. Fernando Alonso, watched by the Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, making a rare visit to the paddock, failed to make it to Q3. Valencia died a little at that moment.
Another former champion, Michael Schumacher, also went out in Q2. Some predicted he might win here, for the long straights and slow corners should be to the liking of Mercedes.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber did not even get as far as Q2, dropping out in the first session. He missed the final practice in the morning with brake problems and went out on the grip-friendly soft tyres to make sure he got through but even that was not enough as he had hydraulic issues and a lack of DRS.
How he must have envied Vettel, who won pole by almost four tenths of a second. Red Bull went into qualifying with an updated rear end but it was Vettel who made the difference. “The pressure was on and that is when he is at his best,” said team principal Christian Horner.
Vettel said: “It will be a difficult race and difficult to predict. We have seen too much this year to sit here on Saturday afternoon and predict what is going to happen. It is easier to predict football.
“It will be hotter tomorrow and there will be a lot of cars to look out for. Ferrari is very competitive, Williams is quick, Lotus proved [its speed] in Bahrain. This year, grid position is obviously important but perhaps not as important.”
Button, looking forlorn, struck a very different note and he was entitled to feel a little sorry for himself, for he is an exceptional driver who, because of the eccentric nature of the tyres, is not being rewarded for the smooth precision that defines his work. It will be the eighth time in eight races this season that Button will start behind his McLaren team-mate Hamilton. “I know exactly how it was and I don’t know why but I kept on locking the fronts and could not slow the car down. Not a lot happens here in Valencia during the race. You cannot overtake round here. If you get it right on the strategy, then maybe, but the way the tyres seem to hold on for most people, it is not going to be the most exciting race. The only person who I would say could move up is the Lotus.”
Button, who also complained that his car did not go any faster when he put on fresh rubber, already trails the championship leader Hamilton by 43 points and he will soon drop out of the title race unless something happens. Later, he regretted that he had been so negative about Valencia but what he said was correct and he will find it difficult to move up the field.
He will start as the filling in a Force India sandwich, for Nico HĂĽlkenberg is in front and Paul Di Resta behind. It was a good afternoon for Force India and at one point, when they had both cars inside the top four in Q3, they looked capable of something better.
Hamilton was chipper about his second place. “I expected to be a lot further back,” he said. “We struggled all weekend and into qualifying I had to make some guesses as to what set-up I wanted, and it seems to work. I’m really surprised. The guys did a great job to get me a good lap and the car felt pretty good. The gap is still quite big so it will be quite a tough race as always.”
It was a hard day for Marussia. Timo Glock was unable to take part in qualifying because of illness and his team-mate Charles Pic was unable to beat either of the HRT cars.