Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position in Yeongam ahead of Sunday’s Korean Grand Prix. It is the British driver’s first pole since Canada in 2010 and the first time a Red Bull has not occupied the top spot all season. An all-McLaren front row was very briefly on the cards as Hamilton’s team-mate Jenson Button slotted in just behind him, only for the world champion, Sebastian Vettel, to split the pair, taking second place, two-tenths of a second behind Hamilton.
With the first day’s practice run entirely in wet conditions, there was only a one-hour session in the morning for the drivers to assess tyres and run in the dry before qualifying. The McLarens immediately looked quick, carrying over an improved performance that had been on show in Suzuka last weekend, with Button and Hamilton finishing the session fastest.
It was a pace they continued in qualifying, with Hamilton leading the field in Q1 and Q2. However, he has shown similar promise previously this season and failed to convert it into pole. This time there were no mistakes.
Running the harder of the two tyres – the (prime) softs – in the first session, both McLarens set quick times, while Red Bull opted to send Vettel and Mark Webber out for their one run on the (option) supersoft variant – the team working on the assumption that having an extra set of unused prime tyres for the race may be more valuable, which was confirmed by Vettel afterwards, saying: “We saved all our prime tyres which will be crucial tomorrow.”
Both teams switched to the supersofts for the second run, with Hamilton immediately putting in a time of 1min 36.326sec which his opponents could not match, and he was followed in by Vettel, Webber and Button. Michael Schumacher suffered from a tyre vibration problem and was knocked out of contention for Q3 by some excellent laps from Vitaly Petrov and both the Force India’s of Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil, whose car was clearly enjoying the straight-line speed opportunities offered by the two straights in sector one, the second of which is the longest in Formula One.
The final shoot-out was one of the closest of the whole season, a gripping head-to-head that finally went McLaren’s way. Hamilton, clearly keen to avoid any complications, again went straight out and threw down his marker, going quicker again as the exceedingly green track finally started to rubber-in. He went three-tenths faster than his previous time but Vettel, following him, posted a quicker second sector. Tense moments followed until the German crossed the line, for once not stealing the lead, he was but three-hundredths of a second behind Hamilton and would have only one more chance to better it.
Having missed the window for his last flying lap in Japan last weekend, McLaren seemed determined to leave no margin for error in Yeongam. Again Hamilton went out early with a five-second gap to Webber’s car ahead and again he posted the target, going quicker again with a 1min 35.820sec lap, winning back the time he had previously lost to Vettel in the middle sector.
And this time there was no answer from Red Bull. Button was on the front row for seconds before Vettel beat him by a tenth but without going below the 1min 36sec mark. Webber took fourth, followed by Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, Nico Rosberg, Petrov, di Resta and Sutil.
McLaren will be relieved to have secured their first pole of the season as well as ending Red Bull’s unbroken run at the top that goes back to Abu Dhabi last year, covering 16 races. Hamilton, however, after an incident-strewn season, seemed subdued and unwilling to attach too much significance to his performance.
“I am very happy. But tomorrow is what counts,” he said. “It is probably one of the first positives I have had for a while, so to be back on pole is a great feeling, of course. But tomorrow is the most important day. We had some difficult races in the past, so hopefully I’ll try to redeem myself tomorrow and as long as we can get some strong points for the team as they have worked hard. I hope tomorrow me and Jenson can repay them.”
Missing pole here means Red Bull remain tied with McLaren and Williams on the record total of 15 poles in a season, and Vettel remains two behind Nigel Mansell’s record of 14 in a season but the German was happy with his performance. “Once again, we pushed them very, very hard in qualifying and got very close, closer than probably they expected and closer than we expected so we did a very good job,” he said.
The world champion was also optimistic about his chances in the race. “It’s not a long way down to the first corner and turn three is a little bit exposed,” he said. “It’s a long race, lots of things can happen. Tyre wear is crucial and Jenson did a good race last race, so that will be important tomorrow.”
Tyre-wear could be absolutely pivotal and uncertainty about their performance may be why Hamilton is taking nothing for granted. Degradation will be very high, with three and potentially four stops on the agenda. Those are conditions that Hamilton knows suits his team-mate Button’s driving style more than his own but to a certain extent the whole race will be a journey into the unknown for all the teams. Last year’s drive was run entirely in the wet and they have had little time on the slick rubber this weekend and, while overtaking will be difficult in the second and third sectors, there remain enough unanswered questions for an intriguing contest on Sunday.