Fernando Alonso admitted he was not surprised by his result in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix, despite finishing in fifth position.
The Ferrari driver was nearly half a second off the pace of pace-setter Sebastian Vettel, also being outqualified by team-mate Felipe Massa for the second time this season. Alonso said he expected to be unable to match the Red Bulls and McLaren, and was at least pleased to have outpaced Mark Webber.
"I am not very surprised by this result: at the end of the day, McLaren and Red Bull have been quicker than us all weekend long and at least we have managed to get ahead of Webber," said Alonso. "I seem to have a season ticket for fifth place this year and at least it means I start from the clean side of the track.
"Tomorrow I expect significant tire degradation to be a key feature of the race, with the possibility of several pit stops, which means strategy will play a very important role. We hope we won't have the same problems as in Singapore two weeks ago.
"We will try and make the best choices and fight for a podium finish, which is a realistic target. The win is certainly less so: as we saw in qualifying, McLaren seem very close to Red Bull here."
Teammate Massa qualified in fourth position in what he called a tough qualifying. The Brazilian was also happy to have outqualified a Red Bull, and downplayed the significance of starting alongside Lewis Hamilton, with whom he clashed at the Singapore Grand Prix.
"It was a difficult qualifying session but at least we managed to keep one of the four best cars behind us," he said. "It's never easy here to put together the perfect lap and my last run was very good, even if I lost a little bit in the final sector. Tomorrow, it will be important to get a good start.
"Hamilton alongside me on the grid? It makes no difference to me if it's him or anyone else. The race looks like being a complicated one, with a lot of stops to change tires that show significant degradation here, so it follows that strategy will play a key role.
"It will be vital to find the right pace, so as to be quick, but at the same time, save the tires. Overtaking will not be easy, despite KERS and DRS: maybe tire wear will count for more, given that you come onto the main straight off a very slow chicane. Our aim is the podium: we're starting one place off it, so it's a realistic expectation."