Sebastian Vettel beat Lewis Hamilton and Pastor Maldonado to pole position in a spectacular qualifying battle ahead of the European Grand Prix in Valencia.
Williams driver Maldonado looked set to start first for the second time this season – having inherited Barcelona pole after Hamilton was penalized – as he surged to the top with a 1m38.475s lap in the closing moments of qualifying. But at that moment Vettel was putting in a spectacular lap in the revised Red Bull, coming through to depose Maldonado by nearly four tenths of a second with a 1m38.086s. Hamilton's McLaren then slipped ahead of Maldonado by 0.065sec with the Briton's final lap.
Lotus could not quite produce the pole challenge that many had predicted, but still qualified better than has often been the case this year, with Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen lining up fourth and fifth.
The astonishingly close initial stages of the session claimed several early victims – including both Ferraris, Michael Schumacher's Mercedes and Mark Webber's Red Bull, none of which made it into the top 10. That was in part because a host of underdogs proceeded to Q3, with both Force Indias and Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi reaching the top 10.
The Force Indias both made appearances inside the top four during Q3 before being edged back to eighth (Nico Hulkenberg) and 10th (Paul di Resta), split by Jenson Button's McLaren. Kobayashi took seventh, just behind Nico Rosberg's Mercedes.
Less than three tenths of a second covered the top 13 cars in Q2, and several top teams were squeezed out. Most significantly for the title battle – and most disappointing for the partisan Spanish crowd – was that Alonso missed out on Q3 by 0.004sec, as lapping just 0.218sec off pacesetter Grosjean left him 11th. Schumacher squeezed in between the two Ferraris in 12th, with all three less than 0.08sec from the Q3 cut-off.
The other early shock was that Webber only managed 19th, hampered by hydraulic issues and a lack of DRS on his Red Bull.
The session gave Heikki Kovalainen and Caterham another chance to star, and the Finn outpaced both Toro Rossos to take 16th on the grid, behind Bruno Senna (Williams) and Sergio Perez (Sauber), both of whom were some way off their teammates' pace in Q2.
It was a tough session for Marussia. While Timo Glock was sidelined by illness, his teammate Charles Pic was unable to beat either HRT.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m38.086s
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m38.410s + 0.324
3. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m38.475s + 0.389
4. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m38.505s + 0.419
5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m38.513s + 0.427
6. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m38.623s + 0.537
7. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m38.741s + 0.655
8. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m38.752s + 0.666
9. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m38.801s + 0.715
10. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m38.992s + 0.906
Q2 cut-off time: 1m38.703s Gap **
11. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m38.707s + 0.218
12. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m38.770s + 0.281
13. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m38.780s + 0.291
14. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m39.207s + 0.718
15. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m39.358s + 0.869
16. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m40.295s + 1.806
17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m40.358s + 1.869
Q1 cut-off time: 1m40.087s Gap *
18. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m40.203s + 1.378
19. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m40.395s + 1.570
20. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m40.457s + 1.632
21. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m42.171s + 3.346
22. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m42.527s + 3.702
23. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m42.675s + 3.850
107% time: 1m45.742s
* Gap to quickest in Q1
** Gap to quickest in Q2