DEFENDING world champion Sebastian Vettel led Red Bull's first front-row lock-out of the year, seizing pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, with teammate Mark Webber second in a curtailed qualifying session yesterday.
Vettel's time of one minute, 30.839 seconds was 0.251 seconds better than Webber's, with McLaren's Jenson Button third. The Briton will start in eighth, being slapped with a five-place penalty for a gearbox change.
Well qualified: Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Button's punishment promotes Kamui Kobayashi to third on the grid. The Japanese driver put in a stunning late lap on his home circuit, followed by France's Romain Grosjean for Lotus.
McLaren-bound Mexican Sergio Perez will start fifth in the second Sauber, ahead of Ferrari's championship leader Fernando Alonso and Finland's Lotus driver, Kimi Raikkonen, whose spin in the final minute prevented a last flying lap for some drivers.
Despite the shortened top-10 shootout, Button suggested the McLarens may have found the Red Bulls' pace too hot to handle, even with a final chance to set the fastest lap.
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton will start from a disappointing ninth place in his first race since announcing his departure for Mercedes next season, with Ferrari's Felipe Massa 10th.
In the opening mini-session Q1, soon-to-retire Michael Schumacher produced a last lap to save him from elimination, and instead knocked Brazilian Bruno Senna out of the running.
Vettel looked supreme early, and he remained super-fast in the second session when he was chased hard by both Button and Webber, as Red Bull suddenly found the form that has brought it two straight drivers' and constructors' titles.
Schumacher, who crashed heavily in practice on Friday, was unable to make the top-10 shootout and after clocking the 13th-best time, he will start from 23rd on the grid due to a 10-place penalty for a crash in Singapore.
Massa, of Ferrari, failed to make the cut and he will start 11th ahead of the frustrated Briton Paul di Resta, of Force India, Pastor Maldonado, of Williams, Nico Rosberg, Australia's Daniel Ricciardo, of Toro Rosso, and Jean-Eric Vergne.
■In Strasbourg, Sebastian Loeb closed in on his record ninth world drivers' title on Friday, the Citroen driver leading his home Rally of France by 13 seconds from Ford's Finnish driver, Jari-Matti Latvala.
Loeb's teammate, Finland's Mikko Hirvonen, was placed third, at 32 seconds. Loeb, 38, has a 61-point advantage over Hirvonen, the only rival who can prevent him winning the title, in the drivers' standings. He claimed four of Friday's eight special stages.
Loeb will take the title today if he finishes in front of Hirvonen, or one place behind the Finn, as long as Hirvonen does not win the rally and the power stage. He will also be crowned champion again if Hirvonen fails to finish in the top eight.