Sebastian Vettel will line up on the front row for the potentially crucial Brazilian Grand Prix, but admitted that he thought he was closer to surprise polesitter Nico Hulkenberg than he was.

The German, having set the pace throughout Friday free practice, had to settle for second spot behind the similarly-powered Robert Kubica, but was right in the mix throughout the three phases of qualifying, taking third behind title rivals Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber in the opening 20 minutes, and moving up to second behind his Red Bull team-mate next time around.

When it really mattered, he initially traded top spot on the timesheets with Alonso, Webber and Lewis Hamilton but, when the drying track called for slicks, found an unexpected obstacle in the way of his quest for a tenth pole of the season. Along with his championship rivals, the German appeared to find the changing surface a challenge, and failed to find enough time to go any higher than second on the grid as surprise package Nico Hulkenberg not only set the benchmark, but bettered it with the final lap of the ten-minute shoot-out session.

"It was a tricky session, and it was a tough call in Q3 after the first run on intermediate tyres," Vettel explained, after clocking 1min 15.519secs, "The circuit looked dry, but the last sector was very tricky. In the end, I think everyone decided to go on to dry tyres, and the track was getting better and better, but it was still slippery.

"At first, I thought I had missed pole by only a tenth, but then I saw that there was another digit and Nico had a second lead over us! Congratulations to him, as it's very easy to make a mistake in these conditions. We were targeting for pole today, but it could have been worse in the difficult conditions, so I'm happy to start from second."

Team boss Christian Horner admitted that he had been surprised by 'an amazing couple of laps from Nico Hulkenberg', but insisted that Red Bull could be satisfied with a session that left its two contenders as best of the rest behind the Williams driver.

"It was a very, very strong team performance today from both drivers to finish ahead of our main components," he commented, "It sets up an interesting race for tomorrow."

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