There were echoes of the 2011 season in qualifying for the 2012 F1 Grand Prix of Japan, with Red Bull looking dominant in a way that we haven't seen for quite some time. Sebastian Vettel was well out in front of his team mate Mark Webber, who starts alongside him on the front row for the first time since Silverstone giving the pair the first Red Bull lockout of 2012.

There were moments of drama at the end of Q1 when Michael Schumacher was forced into a late scramble to make it through to the next session and Bruno Senna was baulked on his own final flying lap by Jean-Eric Vergne; and anxious moments at the end of Q2 when a late flurry of flying laps from other teams threatened to upset some of the Red Bull and McLaren campaign.

Unfortunately, yellow flags for a late spin by Kimi Raikkonen in the final seconds of Q3 rather punctured the growing excitement as it left several drivers unable to post a final qualifying effort to really challenge for grid positions. That worked in favour of the Red Bulls who had gone clearly fastest with their initial efforts at the very start, and they duly clinched the front row for tomorrow's Grand Prix without any last-minute dramas.

It had been a relatively quiet start to qualifying, with Paul di Resta setting the first flying lap of the session with a time of 1:33.661s, and gradually the times started to be posted one after the other as the picture for Q1 built up.

Late to set any times was Pastor Maldonado, who encountered technical problems on his early out lap that forced him to return to the pits, leaving him only six minutes toward the end of the session to go out and post a time good enough to get through to the second round. He immediately went safe in second place by resorting to the soft compound tyres right away.

With Paul di Resta also leaping up the timesheets with his own late lap on the options, a shiver of fear went through the entire field as everyone feared being bumped from the top-17 positions by late fliers from the backmarkers. In the end the gold rush didn't materialise, and the usual suspects from Caterham, Marussia and HRT were duly dumped from the day's proceedings - with Pedro de la Rosa managing to put himself ahead of Charles Pic, Vitaly Petrov and Narain Karthikeyan on the grid.

The focus was now on the identity of the seventh driver would be joining them on the sidelines, and for a long time it appeared that it might be Michael Schumacher after Mercedes opted to hold him back for a very late run. When his first flying lap saw him run wide out of Degner 2, the multiple former world champion barely scraped over the line in time to start a second flier before the chequered flag came out. He pulled it off, although 16th place was too close for comfort especially given he has his ten-place grid penalty from Singapore to cope with on Sunday: it wouldn't stop him repeating the late-lap gambit in Q2 however.

That briefly left Toro Rosso's Daniel Riccicardo looking exposed in the drop zone, but he improved to safety which landed Williams' Bruno Senna in danger. Senna's attempt to bag a decent time in the final minutes was affected by Riccicardo's team mate Jean-Eric Vergne in an incident inevitably heading to the attention of the race stewards, but whatever the outcome it would be too late for Senna whose lap was ruined and his hopes of getting through were dashed.

The remaining 17 drivers got down to work again five minutes later, and just as he had in Q1 Sebastian Vettel went straight to the top of the timesheets, this time with a lap of 1:31.501s putting him ahead of Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton as qualifying seemed to be coming down to a Red Bull/McLaren showdown.

By contrast, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso was still looking off the pace and was once again a quarter of a second off the pace of his team mate Felipe Massa after their initial efforts. Both Ferraris felt distinctly unsafe when it came to deciding whether to join the final five-minute scramble, and they were right to do so: while Alonso improved his time and safely made it through to Q3, Massa found himself tumbling down the positions. When he was unable to improve his time with his final effort, the Brazilian found himself ousted from the top ten by a final flier from Romain Grosjean that put the Lotus up into seventh.

In the end only the top three - Vettel, Button and Webber - felt confident in sitting it out and saving a possible crucial set of tyres for race day. Vettel and Button's times proved untouchable at the top, but Webber had a nervous time as he watched himself fall down the timesheets until he finally stabilised in sixth place. Hamilton had joined the last-minute fray but couldn't post a faster time - but he was still just about safely through in eighth by the time the session ended.

Also getting into Q3 were the two Saubers of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez, along with Grosjean's team mate Kimi Raikkonen. Nico Hulkenberg took the final slot in Q3, but his Force India team mate Paul di Resta came up on slow traffic on cool-down laps on his final flying lap and ended up failing to make the cut, finishing with the 12th fastest time of the session just ahead of Michael Schumacher who will now start from a dismal 23rd place after his grid penalty is enacted. His team mate Nico Rosberg could only manage 15th place in the times, butting him ahead of both Toro Rossos on the grid but behind Pastor Maldonado.

The Red Bull duo immediately leapt into action at the start of Q3 and claimed a provisional front row lock-out with Vettel posting a formidable 1:30.839s to lay down his marker. Lewis Hamilton continued to struggle with the set-up of his car and his first lap was only good enough for sixth place a full second and a half off Vettel. Button was looking happier and slotted into third place less than half a second back from the provisional pole time, but with a five-place grid penalty of his own hanging over him for a gearbox change before the weekend it wasn't the qualifying performance that the Woking squad were looking for.

Just as things were looking set for a final two-minute showdown at the very end of Q3, Kimi Raikkonen strayed on to the grass verge, ran wide and then lost the backend of the Lotus as he tried to come back onto the track and spun at Spoon to bring out yellow flags that thwarted the flying laps of the cars immediately behind him. Even though the track workers quickly cleared the caution, it was enough to harm the chances of several drivers including Hamilton, who couldn't improve his time and ended up pushed down to ninth place on the grid. Jenson Button also couldn't improve on his own third-fastest time and will have to settle for starting from eighth place on Sunday just ahead of his out-of-sorts team mate.

Two drivers that did improve their times at this point were Kamui Kobayashi and Romain Grosjean, whose times were good enough to put them alongside one another on the second row of the grid after Button's penalty is applied. However, replays seemed to show Kobayashi passing the waved yellows for Raikkonen's spin while on his flying lap. Since he went on to set his fastest time of the session on that run, it's possible that the stewards could be handing out a penalty to the local hero before the start of Sunday's race. If that proves to be the case then it would boost Sergio Perez onto the second row alongside Romain Grosjean, with Fernando Alonso set to start behind them followed by Raikkonen, Button, Hamilton - and Nico Hulkenberg, who did not set a lap time after it was confirmed that like Button he will also have to take a five-place grid penalty for fitting a new gearbox.

Qualifying might be over, but the story of the starting grid for the Japanese Grand Prix could still be far from done. But whatever happens, there's no doubt that Sebastian Vettel has claimed his 34th career pole in F1 and is looking in ominous form for a win on Sunday to reboot his 2012 title challenge over Fernando Alonso.


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