GREATER NOIDA, India (Reuters) - Formula One championship leader Sebastian Vettel roared to pole position at the Indian Grand Prix on Saturday as Red Bull flexed their muscles with a third successive one-two sweep in qualifying.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, Vettel’s closest challenger and six points behind the 25-year-old German with four races remaining including Sunday‘s, starts fifth at the Buddh International Circuit.
“All in all it was a great weekend so far. No problems with the car. The boys have been pushing extremely hard,” grinned Vettel, his title momentum seemingly unstoppable, after beating Webber by 0.044 seconds.
“You know the races these days, you know that a lot of things can happen, I don’t think that means a lot,” he cautioned of his advantage over Alonso.
Vettel won from pole in the inaugural Indian race last year and looked comfortable again on a hot and hazy afternoon at the track south of Delhi, chalking up his fifth pole of the season and 35th of his career.
The double champion completed just 13 laps to Alonso’s 21 and Hamilton’s 23 and, unless some misfortune halts him in his tracks, can be expected to run away with a fourth successive win on Sunday.
He was joined on the front row by Australian team mate Mark Webber, who might have snatched pole for the second race in a row but for a mistake on turn three. It was the first time Red Bull have managed a hat-trick of front row sweeps.
“On the last corner, I got a little on the Astroturf on the exit and didn’t have the cleanest run to the line, but I‘m driving the car,” Webber said. “I was surprised to end up second, to be honest.”
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, their championship hopes all but over already, qualified third and fourth respectively with the top three teams lining up in pairs.
“We weren’t quick enough to be ahead of these guys. But we can definitely challenge them in the race. Our race pace is just as good as theirs,” Hamilton said.
Alonso will line up alongside Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa on the third row.
The Spaniard, a double champion like Vettel, refused to be downcast about his place on the grid or concede that his title hopes were ebbing away after he ceded the lead at the previous race in South Korea.
“I think it’s more challenging for us now but I remain 100 percent confident that we will fight for this championship and we will win it,” he told reporters in the Ferrari hospitality area.
”I still think that we can take some good points tomorrow and hopefully more points than Sebastian and in the next races hopefully be a little bit more competitive.
“The first target is to finish in front of them (Red Bull) tomorrow and I think we have chances to do it.”
Finland’s Kimi Raikkonen, who is third overall but 48 points adrift of Vettel, qualified seventh for Lotus at a circuit the 2007 champion has yet to race on having been absent for the past two years.
Mexican Sergio Perez qualified eighth for Sauber, a boost for Indian-born team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, with Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado ninth for Williams after being fastest in the first phase of qualifying.
Narain Karthikeyan, the only Indian in the race, will start on the back row for strugglers HRT. His time was just 0.001 slower than Spanish team mate Pedro de la Rosa, however.
Editing by Josh Reich