Octubre 6th, 2012 (F1plus / Graham Keilloh).- The championship Bull charge is on, then.
Sebastian Vettel's Singapore win last time out got him to somewhere within range of Fernando Alonso at the drivers' championship top, and on the evidence of today's Suzuka qualifying he fully intends to take another bite out of the lead this time too. Game on for the drivers' title.
This is especially as not only did Seb get the pole, it all looked ominously like old times when the Red Bulls would run and hide on a fortnightly basis. For the first time this year the team locked out the front row here at Suzuka, and the qualifying session looked a private Red Bull battle from a very early stage. And indeed Seb continued his record of never not qualifying on pole around this track.
There was a time when everyone could tick off a Suzuka weekend as a Red Bull benefit almost from the point that the calendar was published. This year, in advance, things didn't seem quite so clear, with the Bulls not running away at similar circuits raced on this year in a uncharacteristically bitty campaign for the team (all relatively speaking, of course). But, on today's evidence the RB8 is by now a fundamentally strong racing car. Alonso will have much to think about for the year's remainder.
The only threat to Seb's supremacy in the end came from the stewards' room, as he was investigated for impeding Alonso in the final qualifying reckoning. From a still shot of the ‘incident’ it looked to fall under the category of the sort of thing punished that gets these days (Seb looks to be on the racing line under braking for the chicane, with Alonso off it - though still shots can be very misleading). So there was no doubt a heave of relief in the Red Bull camp when Seb was only given a reprimand rather than a grid drop (and it took the snail-like stewards some three hours to decide this). Still, given how Seb performed on track during the qualifying hour there would have been something a little wrong with pole being taken away from him retrospectively by the stroke of the stewards' pen.
And it gets better for the Bulls. The team's closest challenger (by a distance) in qualifying, Jenson Button, gets a five-place grid drop for a gearbox change, which converts to him starting eighth ('that hurts' said Jenson post-quali, with justification). And Alonso starts in the pack. He set the seventh best qualifying time, which becomes sixth thanks to Jenson's misfortune. The Ferrari as expected looked a bit more on it than in Singapore (but still nowhere near the Bulls); Nando reckons that but for slowing for a late yellow flag he could have been starting up in third.
A combination of penalties and a Kimi Raikkonen spin late on scuppering many quick laps denied us the usual qualifying crescendo and leaves us with a rather messy grid order. Next up behind the Bulls on tomorrow's grid is home hero Kamui Kobayashi. The Suzuka track suits the Sauber for many reasons, and the C31 tends to go even better in races than in qualifying.
The big unknown however is the extent that Kobayashi can step up to the mark; in China he was in a similar position on the grid and faded somewhat on race day, and of course in Spa he was denied showing us what he could do through no fault on his. If nothing else, as is well worn he could do with a strong result given it's not a secret that his Sauber future is under threat. Then we have Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez before we get to the remaining title contenders.
Lewis Hamilton, having looked to be at the sharp end during practice, was oddly off the pace in qualifying (admitting that last minute set up changes backfired) and will line up ninth.
Thus Seb is perfectly-placed to dominate proceedings from the front tomorrow, in a way we've seen from him countless times before. Mark Webber will likely keep him honest, given he's looked about as quick as Vettel this weekend, but it's not at all clear where and how he will usurp him. And the Bulls have a nice buffer of cars between them and the McLarens and Ferraris.
Yes, Grosjean's Lotus and both Saubers will be kind on their tyres tomorrow, and race day tyre wear problems denied Seb a win from pole at Suzuka last year. But somehow such is the RB8's advantage one suspects that all of this won't trouble either of them.
There is many a slip between cup and lip, as the saying goes. And, if you like 'jinxes' no driver in F1 this year has won two races in a row. But, as this is being written, it's genuinely hard to see Seb being beaten tomorrow.