Abu Dhabi: Lewis Hamilton powered to pole position ahead of Red Bull’s Mark Webber as championship leader Sebastian Vettel was pushed to the back of the grid for a fuel infringement at the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix here on Saturday.
Winner of the pole position in its inaugural year in 2009, Hamilton gave himself the best possible chance to reduce Vettel’s points cushion with a time of 1:40.630 in the final part of qualifying at the Yas Marina Circuit.
Vettel, who was provisionally to start alongside Williams F1 Team driver Pastor Maldonado, was penalised for breaching Article 6 for “holding insufficient quantity of fuel” and consequently sent to the back of the grid by the stewards in a decision that was released nearly five hours after qualifying had ended.
Vettel and a Red Bull official were called in to explain why the car had stopped immediately on the track after the chequered flag and not been driven back to the pits under its own power.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso is Vettel’s closest rival for the world crown this season just 13 points adrift of the 25-year-old German, who is aiming for a third straight world title with just three rounds remaining.
Due to the late change, Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen consequently will start on the second row with Maldonado, while Hamilton’s McLaren teammate Jenson Button scaled down to fifth alongside Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso in sixth place.
Meanwhile, McLaren was left to celebrate their 75th pole position win since it accepted Mercedes engines on board, and Hamilton, who suffered identical punishment at the Spanish Grand Prix, could not conceal his delight.
“Very excited, very excited,” he said. “It’s the first time for a long time to be ahead of the Red Bulls, and not to be seeing the tail of them at the start of the race. The team has done a fantastic job with some real improvements to the car.
“It’s going to be as always very, very tough because Red Bull have got great race pace. But we are strong enough to fight them. The guys are massively focused, so I hope that tomorrow’s a good day for us.”
In the first three years of the race in Abu Dhabi the contest for pole had been between Hamilton and Vettel, with honours now even at 2-2 after Red Bull’s German driver had taken the top spot in 2010 and 2011.
Going into the third last race of the 2012 season, Vettel leads the drivers’ standings with 240 points followed by Ferrari’s Alonso (227), Lotus Renault’s Raikkonen (173), Webber (167) and the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Button with 165 and 141 points respectively.
Red Bull is the team to beat after last week’s Indian Grand Prix triumph as the Austrian outfit is the one in prime position to win the Formula One Constructors’ Championship following their current lead of 91 points over chasing Ferrari and 101 points of McLaren.
Red Bull needs to leave Abu Dhabi with a lead of 86 points or 87 points if McLaren wins the race so that they can be confirmed as world champions.
Dogged by brake trouble during Friday’s third and final practice, Vettel could barely recover as he settled in third position on the starting grid.
“I don’t know why we had this problem, but I can only hope it is not something major. We had the pace this afternoon and that was the good thing, but the McLaren was pretty quick,” Vettel said.
Red Bull are favourites to win the Constructors’ Championship, given their current lead of 91 points over chasing Ferrari and 101 points of McLaren.
“I am not entirely happy with the last part of my qualifying, but all in all we can be quite happy,” Vettel added.
“The pace should be good tomorrow. It’s a long race and a lot of things can happen and I am looking forward to it
“We are in a similar position to what we were in India last week, so the focus is to look after ourselves.”
Last year, Vettel started from pole but had the misfortune of retiring early with a rear burst tyre, which consequently ended his dreams of a third straight win in Abu Dhabi as Hamilton went on to notch his first win in the UAE capital.