Lewis Hamilton will start the Korean Grand Prix from pole position after a brilliant qualifying performance Saturday to end the domination of Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team.
Hamilton, who was quickest throughout the hour, clocked a fastest lap of one minute and 35.820 seconds in his McLaren on his second flying run around the Korean International Circuit to leave double world champion Vettel chasing a time he could not match.
The Englishman ended up fastest by two-tenths of a second to claim his first pole for more than a year, the 19th of his career, and answer his critics after a troubled run of inconsistent results and five races without a podium finish.
Vettel, 24, who had reeled off five poles in a row — and 12 in all this season — ended up second on the grid. It was the first time this season that a Red Bull driver had not taken pole.
Hamilton, the 2008 champion, looked to be back to his flamboyant best in the car, but his set jaw and silence as he completed his lap and climbed out spoke of a grim determination to finish the job in Sunday’s 55-lap race.
In a post-qualifying photo session alongside Vettel, Hamilton stared into the middle distance and barely spoke. Afterwards, in the mandatory interviews, he was asked how he felt.
“I’m happy, I’m very happy,” he said in a downbeat voice. “I’m very proud of what the team has been able to achieve over the last few races, but tomorrow is the day that really counts.”
The 26-year-old’s team chief Martin Whitmarsh echoed his views.
“We’re here to win races, but pole position feels good if you haven’t had it for a long time,” Whitmarsh said.
“I’m sure this will cheer Lewis up, not as much as a race win would, but to be on pole, any driver wants that. Regarding the race, it’s a little bit of an unknown how the tyres will survive tomorrow.”
Vettel, who sealed his second world championship in Japan last weekend, said he was happy to have preserved his tyres for the race.
“I think McLaren were very, very competitive yesterday. They were a fair chunk ahead of everybody, including us, but once again we pushed them very hard in qualifying and got close, closer than we expected,” he said.
“Also, we saved all our prime tyres so I think we are in a good position. Tyre wear will be crucial.”
Hamilton’s McLaren teammate and compatriot Jenson Button, the 2009 champion, was third fastest ahead of Australian Mark Webber in the second Red Bull and the two Ferraris of Brazilian Felipe Massa and two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso.
“It’s not perfect, but Lewis has been pretty great all weekend, tough to hold on to,” Button said.
“I’m reasonably happy, but I really haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen in the race regarding tyre degradation on high fuel, so we’ll see.”
Germany’s Nico Rosberg was seventh for Mercedes, ahead of Russian Vitaly Petrov of Renault and the two Force India cars driven by British rookie Paul Di Resta and German Adrian Sutil.
On a welcome dry day after a downpour on Friday, the opening section of the session saw plenty of early action, dominated again by McLaren with Hamilton outpacing Button ahead of Petrov’s Renault and Alonso. Vettel was down in 11th as Red Bull restricted tyre use to one flying lap.
The session saw the usual strugglers and claimed an early scalp with the exit of Brazilian veteran Rubens Barrichello of Williams, trumped in the final seconds by his teammate Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, who survived.
Out with Barrichello went the Lotus pair Finn Heikki Kovalainen and Italian Jarno Trulli, followed by the two Virgins of German Timo Glock and Belgian Jerome d’Ambrosio.
Seven time champion Michael Schumacher, 42, was eliminated in the second round of qualifying as the Force India cars of Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil pushed their way into the top 10 shootout, and the German legend will start the race from 12th.
As the final session unfolded, it was Hamilton who shone first as his McLaren danced, fizzed and twitched to an early fastest time of 1:36.130. It was the benchmark and in succession Button, Webber and Vettel tried to beat it, but failed.