Red Bull Racing driver Sebastian Vettel has put himself in the best possible position to seal his second Formula One title this weekend. He claimed pole position at the Japanese Grand Prix today using Pirelli’s P Zero Yellow soft tires to set a time of 1m30.466s. The German eclipsed his pole time last year of 1m30.785s and beat McLaren driver Jenson Button by just 0.009s. This made it the closest-ever pole in Suzuka, equal to Michael Schumacher’s 2000 benchmark, who beat Mika Hakkinen by exactly the same margin.
With a performance difference of just over a second between the P Zero White medium tires and P Zero Yellow soft tire, the top drivers concentrated on saving their allocation of the faster tires for as long as possible. However, the frontrunners went straight onto soft tires at the beginning of Q2 to guarantee getting through to Q3.
The drivers fighting for pole position aimed to complete the final session with just two runs using the soft tires, in order to save as many sets of the P Zero Yellow compound for the race. The demanding characteristics of the Suzuka circuit, with its high-speed corners that heat up the tires, meant that the soft tires delivered their peak performance on the first flying lap after the out lap, putting pressure on all the drivers to perform instantly.
Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi, who went quickest in Q1, used the soft tire to get through to Q3 but then went back to the medium tire for the final session, where he did not start a flying lap. Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher, together with the Lotus Renault duo of Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov, did not record a time either. Consequently all four drivers will have the possibility to start either on the soft or the hard tires tomorrow.
Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg was surprisingly eliminated in the first session, after a mechanical problem prevented him from leaving the pits. However, with only the top 10 drivers who set a time having to use the tires on which they qualified, Rosberg has the possibility to opt for a radical tire strategy tomorrow with little to lose after being forced to start from the back.
Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery commented: “It was a very fast qualifying and the tires stood up well to the high-speed demands of Suzuka circuit, with no wear or degradation beyond the usual parameters. However, it now seems to become a trend that some cars qualifying in Q3 do not set a time in order to save tires, so we will be working with the teams and the FIA to find a solution that is acceptable to everybody to avoid this kind of scenario in the future, as it is not fair on the spectators. We have made a number of proposals in the past, which the teams rejected, but today showed that this remains a problem which we would like to solve. Looking ahead to the race, with quite a significant lap time difference between the soft and the hard tires, the possibilities for interesting strategies are wide open this weekend. The trade-off for this extra performance of the soft tire is the fact that the crossover point, where the medium tire becomes quicker, might come after only five or six laps. So it’s going to be interesting to see what the teams all opt for.”
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