World champion Sebastian Vettel raced to his 13th pole position of the season in a dramatic qualifying session for the inaugural Indian Grand Prix on Saturday.
The 24-year-old German clocked 1min 24.178sec to outstrip McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber at the purpose-built Buddh International Circuit near New Delhi.
Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso was fourth with McLaren’s Jenson Button, vying to hang into second place in the standings, fifth.
But Felipe Massa was a casualty just seconds from the finish when his right front wheel was knocked askew by a kerb and his Ferrari ploughed into a barrier nose-first.
Hamilton will also be forced to drop three places back on the grid in a penalty handed out on Friday for ignoring warning flags.
Vettel led the drivers into the 10-minute final session and was never headed as he neared Nigel Mansell’s 1992 record of 14 pole positions in a season.
Victory at India’s first grand prix would also keep Vettel on course to equal fellow German Michael Schumacher’s record of 13 wins in a season, set in 2004. Vettel, 24, has 10 wins with three races remaining.
Button, Webber, Hamilton and Alonso are all vying for second spot in the standings after Vettel reclaimed his Formula One crown in Japan earlier this month.
But seven-time champion Schumacher failed to reach the top-10 shoot-out after barely squeaking into the second qualifying segment in a disappointing outing.
Button wore a black armband in memory of British IndyGP driver Dan Wheldon while Massa wore a ’58’ sticker on his helmet to commemorate MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli.
Both racers died in competition in a tragic month for motorsport, casting a shadow over preparations for India’s first ever grand prix held on a dusty development site near New Delhi.
High excitement over the event has been tempered by disquiet at the massive disparity between Formula One’s super-rich and local people living in one of the world’s poorest regions.
But organisers are already celebrating a smooth inauguration of the $400 million Buddh International Circuit as a boost for India’s image after the embarrassment caused by last year’s shambolic Commonwealth Games.