Sebastian Vettel has secured his third consecutive pole position in qualifying for the Korean Grand Prix after an impressive performance in the final stage of the session, allowing him to see off the threat of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
The defending world champion finished two-tenths clear of Hamilton in P2, with teammate Mark Webber qualifying third ahead of his ten-place grid drop following his misdemeanour in Singapore. Romain Grosjean’s good qualifying form continued as he finished fourth ahead of Nico Rosberg and both Ferrari drivers, but for teammate Kimi Raikkonen, such pace was harder to come by as he qualified a lowly tenth.
The Korean International Circuit bathed in warm sunshine for the first stage of qualifying as Mercedes and Red Bull prepared to go head-to-head for pole position. Coming off the back of his fine qualifying performance in Singapore, Esteban Gutierrez was the first driver to post a time in Q1 but Nico Rosberg soon topped this and laid down the first true challenge for teammate Lewis Hamilton and the two Red Bull drivers. Hamilton joined his teammate at the top with his first timed effort whilst Ferrari also ran well on the prime tire early on. Vettel and Webber elected to leave their first runs until the half-way point in the session, doing enough on the primes to get through to Q2 with relative ease. However, Gutierrez’s decision to take on super-soft tires forced many other teams to follow suit, with Kimi Raikkonen running strongly on this compound to finish the session quickest. The Caterham and Marussia drivers propped up the field at the back of the grid, but the final two places in the dropzone became the primary concern for Paul di Resta and the two Williams drivers. di Resta could not improve with his final run after he encountered traffic in the form of Jules Bianchi, but Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado also failed to post a quicker time, causing them to be eliminated at the end of the first session.
Mercedes and Red Bull renewed battle in Q2 as Rosberg and Hamilton posted their first times early on, with Red Bull again opting to leave their initial runs until later in the session. Both teams managed to get through comfortably once again with Vettel finishing fastest, two-tenths ahead of Hamilton. Most of the teams waited until the dying moments of the session to post their final times in order to take advantage of the improving track, but in Raikkonen’s case, an early run very nearly backfired with the Finn eventually scraping through in P8. Despite improving on their final runs, McLaren teammates Sergio Perez and Jenson Button failed to do enough to make it into Q3, qualifying eleventh and twelfth respectively. The Toro Rosso and Force India drivers also missed out on the top ten shootout as Gutierrez and Hulkenberg both ran strongly to secure Sauber their first two-car appearance in Q3 since Japan 2012.
Having used up most of their tires to get into the top ten, some of the runners had to sit in the pits for the majority of Q3 and instead set their times after the checkered flag fell. Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus’ Romain Grosjean had the luxury of running twice. Unsurprisingly, there was very little to separate Webber, Hamilton and Rosberg, but the Australian driver managed to edge less than half a tenth ahead of the Briton. However, a strong final sector from Vettel allowed him to claim provisional pole by two-tenths of a second whilst Grosjean moved into P4 ahead of Rosberg. All ten drivers went out on track to set a time late on, with Gutierrez securing his best-ever qualifying result in ninth. Nico Hulkenberg also impressed for Sauber in P8, finishing behind both Ferrari drivers whilst Raikkonen appeared to struggle on his final run to finish tenth. At the front, Rosberg failed to improve with his final run and Webber also opted to pit instead of setting a second time. This gave Hamilton a chance to beat Vettel’s time, but the Briton could only finish second, allowing Vettel to back off and pit knowing that a third consecutive pole position had been secured.
The race between Mercedes and Red Bull looks set to continue into the race on Sunday, but perhaps the German team will be comforted by the fact that the Korean Grand Prix has never been won from pole position. However, Vettel’s pace suggests that his charge for a fourth consecutive championship is not going to be hindered barring wet weather or a mechanical failure in Korea on Sunday.