Sebastian Vettel will start from pole position at the Indian Grand Prix, shoring up the Red Bull driver’s bid for an almost inevitable fourth straight Formula One title.
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Vettel only needs to finish fifth or better Sunday to wrap up the championship with three races remaining, and bettered his own lap record to claim his third straight pole at Buddh International Circuit. The German has won both previous Indian GP races, leading every lap.
He clocked 1 minute, 24.119 seconds to beat his nearest rival by 0.7 seconds.
Nico Rosberg will share the front of the grid after finishing second, with fellow Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton third and Red Bull’s Mark Webber fourth.
"It’s a very good result for the team with Mark sitting in fourth behind those guys," Vettel said.
Red Bull can also make it the fourth straight double of drivers’ and constructors’ titles if Ferrari fails to outscore it by more than 19 points.
Felipe Massa starts from fifth, while Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso could only manage eighth.
"I’m starting eighth so I have to recover this position somewhere in the race," Alonso said of his chance of a podium finish. "The soft tires may last with good conditions … but if the soft are a disaster tomorrow, people in front will have problems."
Romain Grosjean, who was expected to challenge for the podium, was eliminated in the first round of qualifying after Lotus’ gamble on sticking with medium tires backfired. The Frenchman will start from 17th on the grid.
"We just missed the cut-off time, everyone went quicker than we thought," Grosjean said. "Today, for some reason, the medium (tires) were not quick enough. It’s a decision we took together, we were confident we could do enough with them but we got it wrong."
Vettel and Webber chose differing tire strategies for qualifying, with Vettel electing to use the quicker but fragile soft compound for the third round and race start, and Webber preferring the medium compound.
"Which works out to be the right strategy, we’ll find out tomorrow. But the race is long and we’ll have plenty of time to make up," Vettel said. "In the end I think the strategy shouldn’t determine the result that much."
Vettel has dominated since arriving in India, leading all three practice sessions.
"The car’s been very strong since Friday morning," Vettel said. "We didn’t have to adjust that much."
Rosberg said Mercedes had pushed his car to its limits to make him as competitive as possible.
"Up to now it’s been successful," he said. "On a knife’s edge all the time, but for now it’s worked and it seems we’re a step forward from where we were in recent races."
Hamilton, while happy with qualifying, was pessimistic of his chances of challenging the Red Bulls.
"I’m really happy with the result and the lap time I was able to get. … We’ll try and push these guys as hard as possible in the race obviously," he said. "They’re in another world, but we’ll try and stay ahead of the rest."
Force India failed to qualify in the top 10 for its home race, with Paul Di Resta and Adrian Sutil eliminated in the second round in 12 and 13th respectively.
The start of the morning third practice session was delayed by 20 minutes after organizers deemed the haze over the track would prevent the race’s medical helicopter from flying.
Seasonal atmospheric conditions have produced dense morning mists at Greater Noida, with similar conditions forecast for Sunday.
Massa said visibility was not an issue for the drivers.
"For us it’s fine, I think for the helicopter it was a problem."