Sebastian Vettel ramped up his bid for a Formula One world title hat-trick on Saturday when he stormed to his fourth straight pole position at the Japanese Grand Prix ahead of teammate Mark Webber.
The defending world champion, who won last month in Singapore to rise to second in the standings, produced a supreme level of speed and a fastest lap of one minute and 30.839 seconds as he dominated proceedings at Suzuka.
Vettel’s performance highlighted a recent surge of form from Red Bull, who have claimed the drivers and constructors title for the last two seasons, while British rivals McLaren were left licking their wounds after Saturday’s session.
Vettel was fastest by two-tenths of a second ahead Webber, with Jenson Button third fastest in the leading McLaren. But the 2009 champion will start the race from eighth because of a five-place penalty for installing a new gearbox.
Meanwhile Button’s team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who rocked the sport by announcing his defection to Mercedes next season, will start from a disappointing ninth place.
Home hero Japanese Kamui Kobayashi of Sauber put in a stunning late lap to finish fourth fastest, meaning he moves up to third after Button’s penalty, followed by Romain Grosjean in the leading Lotus.
Vettel might have clocked an even faster time in the closing minutes, but was slowed when Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus spun his car at the Spoon curve and yellow flags were waved.
The German’s fourth pole of the season and the 34th of his career gives him a great opportunity to close the 29-point gap on Ferrari’s championship leader Fernando Alonso in Sunday’s race.
“The car feels fantastic so all in all it came together nicely and we hope for a good race tomorrow. It’s nice to see the support we get at Suzuka and it’s great to come here and drive the circuit the way that I did,” Vettell said.
With six races remaining this year, Alonso leads with 194 points ahead of Vettel on 165, Raikkonen on 149 and Hamilton on 142.
Webber said: “It has been a good weekend for us so far. Seb and I had a clean run in Q3 at the start. They were two big laps from both of us. Seb got me, it was a good lap for him.
“To be this much higher up (the grid) after a rough run of late, I’m happy to be on the front row. For the team, it’s a great tonic for them at this point of the championship.”
McLaren-bound Mexican Sergio Perez was sixth fastest in the second Sauber ahead of championship leader Alonso, Raikkonen in the second Lotus and McLaren’s Hamilton -- who remained bullish despite his unspectacular outing.
“With the pace that I have, who knows what will happen in the race,” said Hamilton.