Red Bull Racing star Sebastian Vettel has thrown down the gauntlet to Formula 1 World Championship leader Jenson Button in atoning for his Monaco mistake with a storming run to pole position for this weekend's Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul – suggesting that after three races of pure Brawn GP domination, the title battle is back on.
It was, indeed, a breathless conclusion to qualifying around the anti-clockwise, technically challenging and physically demanding 14-turn Istanbul Park Circuit close to the Bosphorous, with Mark Webber and then Button stealing the top spot late on in Q3 before Vettel responded with a scintillating final effort to blow all of his competitors out of the water.
Rubens Barrichello in the second Brawn made the best of a bad situation in hauling himself up from seventh place to third on his very last effort, with Webber winding up fourth and Toyota's Jarno Trulli – who had similarly threatened to challenge for P1 after lapping a close second-quickest to Vettel on the first run – fifth.
The Ferraris underwhelmed somewhat with Kimi Raikkonen sixth and Istanbul expert and record man Felipe Massa seventh, with Fernando Alonso recovering well from a spin to take eighth in his Renault and Nico Rosberg for Williams and BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica rounding out the top ten at the close.
A fraught final few minutes to Q2 witnessed the top spot changing hands with alacrity from one moment to the next. With the suspicion that Brawn was keeping its powder dry, Red Bull and Toyota duelled it out for supremacy, though Webber left it late after a mistake on his first run put the Australian under pressure to perform later on – and perform he did. From 15th he leapt up to sixth at the close, with team-mate Vettel leading the way, seeing off a late challenge from Trulli to steal P1 in the 'low-fuel' session.
Toyota team-mate Timo Glock, by contrast – a man who had already struggled in Q1 – failed to produce the same pace, dropping out in a lowly 13th, in company with Nick Heidfeld in the BMW and Kazuki Nakajima in the Williams just ahead of him, with the Japanese ace's strong practice and Q1 form seeming to evaporate when it mattered the most, and a couple of off-track 'adventures' scarcely helping his cause either. McLaren-Mercedes' Heikki Kovalainen and the impressive Adrian Sutil completed the top 15, with the latter handing Force India its second Q2 breakthrough in as many outings.
Less than half a second, meanwhile, covered those who progressed on to the all-important Q3 shoot-out, with Vettel leading the way from Trulli, Button, Ferrari duo Massa and Raikkonen, Webber, Barrichello, Rosberg, Kubica in the improved, double-diffuser equipped BMW F1.09 and Alonso, who left it late to save his skin and ensure that his record of beginning every race of 2009 from inside the top ten remains intact.
Given how tightly-packed the field had been throughout practice – with barely seven tenths of a second blanketing the leading 16 runners on Friday, and a similar margin covering the top 15 in FP3 on Saturday morning – it was anticipated that there might be a number of big-name casualties inQ1. Nobody, though could have anticipated that the session would claim arguably the highest-profile scalp of them all.
As Toyota, Red Bull, Ferrari, Williams and Brawn GP set the leading pace – with Nakajima, Trulli, Vettel, Rosberg and Raikkonen all swapping the top spot between them – there were contrasting fortunes at BMW and McLaren, with Heidfeld and defending F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton looking to be the men most in danger as the clock ticked down, belying the progress the latter believed the Woking-based outfit had made after the opening practice day.