2013 Japanese GP: Mark Webber defeats team-mate Sebastian Vettel to Suzuka pole
Vettel suffers KERS issues, Hamilton third, Alonso slips to eighth
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 13/10/13 7:13am
On the weekend when Vettel could clinch a fourth successive World Championship, it was Webber who - for one day at least - changed the relentless season-long narrative at Red Bull by outpacing Vettel in Q3 for the first time since last year's Korean GP - exactly a year to the race weekend ago.
The Australian, who has just five grands prix of his F1 career left before switching to sportscars, has been in Vettel's shadow more than ever this season but rose to the occasion in Japan for Saturday as the German, for the first time in five F1 attempts at Suzuka, couldn't find the required pace for pole after losing the speed advantage of the KERS boost on both of his Q3 runs. He ultimately came up 0.174s shy of Webber's 1:30.915 time.
An earlier KERS battery failure had already forced Vettel out of the closing stages of final practice, but Red Bull had hoped a replacement pack had resolved the gremlins.
Webber himself conceded afterwards that his 12th career pole therefore had a slightly "hollow" feel to it, but perhaps in reference to his own depressing run of bad luck on his side of the garage recently, the Australian added "you have to take the opportunities when they come and I'm very happy".
But while the frontrow order may have a slightly refreshing feel to it, it still proved a dominant Red Bull qualifying display with Lewis Hamilton, so often the World Champions' biggest Saturday challenger this season, lapping over three tenths slower than Webber in third place.
Behind Hamilton and Red Bull, however, and it was the qualifying fortunes of Ferrari's 2014 all-World Champion line-up that again provided much intrigue.
At Lotus, Romain Grosjean continued his fine form with fourth place, in the process delivering yet another comfortable qualifying defeat of his Maranello-bound team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who could only manage ninth again.
Indeed, in a sign of the recent Saturday times, Raikkonen will share the fourth row with 2014 partner Fernando Alonso as Felipe Massa, in fifth, proved Ferrari's lead Q3 runner for the third time in four races.
Should Vettel turn the tables on Webber in Sunday's race, Alonso must finish at least where he starts in eighth to make his perennial rival wait at least two more weeks to wrap up another Drivers' Championship. Given the Spaniard starts in a potential danger zone for the first corner - as he found out to his considerable cost 12 months ago - the possibility of an early coronation has arguably increased.
That Vettel still qualified on the frontrow despite, as Red Bull chief Christian Horner confirmed afterwards to Sky Sports F1, not having access to KERS on either of his Q3 runs, and what appeared less than perfect middle sectors in any case, emphasises his personal season-long consistency - and the RB9's inherent speed advantage over the field around Suzuka's famously fast sweeps.
Behind the top four, Massa beat the second Mercedes of Nico Rosberg to fifth, with Korean GP hero Nico Hulkenberg continuing his recent strong form to outpace both Alonso and Raikkonen in seventh place.
Jenson Button had run among the top runners in the early stages of qualifying but ultimately slipped down to a more familiar 2013 position of tenth, although qualified on the hard tyres, just ahead of McLaren team-mate Sergio Perez - who just missed out on Q3 in 11th - and Force India's Paul Di Resta.
While the qualifying hour didn't see a repeat of the incident-filled practice sessions, when numerous drivers were caught out by Suzuka's unforgiving confines, Q1 had nonetheless been briefly suspended after both rear brakes on Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso overheated and caught fire, briefly shrouding both the STR8 and the mid-part of the lap in smoke.
When the action was restarted the stricken Frenchman was unsurprisingly relegated below the cut line in 18th place, where he was joined by Force India's Adrian Sutil, who experienced a fraught Saturday in the wake of a crash in final practice.
To compound the German's frustration, his VJM06's gearbox had already been changed after the previous unit had been damaged in the crash, triggering a five-place grid penalty, and in the first two instances he will drop behind Vergne and Max Chilton, who produced by far the strongest qualifying performance of his rookie season.
The Briton, who has steadily closed his single-lap pace deficit to Marussia team-mate Jules Bianchi over recent races, not only outpaced the highly-regarded Frenchman by 0.6s but also both Caterhams - the first time either Marussia driver has achieved the feat since Bahrain in April.
In addition to Sutil's five-place penalty, Charles Pic (20th) and Bianchi (22nd) already carried in respective ten-place grid penalties into the session after reaching the three reprimand limit apiece in Korea, meaning the final positions on the grid will be reshaped when the penalties are applied by the FIA on the official grid.