By Jim Armstrong, AP
SUZUKA, Japan–Red Bull driver Mark Webber claimed pole position on Saturday for the Japanese Grand Prix, outqualifying his teammate and runaway Formula One championship leader Sebastian Vettel for the first time this season.
Webber clocked a time of 1 minute, 30.915 seconds at the Suzuka circuit, edging Vettel, who was just under two-tenths of a second off the pace and had problems with his KERS power-boost system in qualifying.
“Sebastian had a problem so it’s a bit of a hollow pole but you have to grab the opportunities when you can,” Webber said.
“It’s a very nice farewell for me on my final time here at Suzuka and on a phenomenal circuit. It was a real highlight for me. In general we’ve got a good car for the race.”
McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton was third fastest, followed by Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg was sixth ahead of Sauber driver Nico Hulkenberg.
Vettel has won three of the past four races in Japan and can clinch his fourth successive world title in Sunday’s race. The title will be his if he wins and nearest rival Fernando Alonso, who was eighth in qualifying, finishes ninth or worse.
If he wins Sunday, Vettel would join Michael Schumacher and Juan-Manuel Fangio as the only men to win four championships in a row. The German, who has a 77-point lead over Alonso, has won the past four races, leading after every lap in each of them.
Vettel, who was bidding for his fourth straight pole, was hobbled by a KERS problem on his first lap of Q3 but refused to blame Saturday’s finish on his car’s technical problems, which initially surfaced in the morning practice.
“We had a technical problem this morning but I don’t think that made a difference in finding the rhythm,” Vettel said. “As a fact, we are on the front row which is a great result for the team.”
Webber, who will leave F1 at season’s end to return to sports car racing, said there was no chance of him moving aside for the championship leader.
“It’s not as though it’s the last race of the year,” Webber said. “He has a big lead in the standings so in general we’ll be racing for ourselves tomorrow.”
Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen qualified ninth while McLaren’s Jenson Button, who won here in 2001, round out the top ten.