Mark Webber came so very close to clinching pole position for this weekend's United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. But despite putting in two purple sectors, the Australian was felled by a near-unbelievable effort from his team mate Sebastian Vettel after the chequered flag to deliver a dominant Red Bull front row lock-out with the rest of the field far behind them in the times.

It had been a slow start to qualifying for the Red Bull pair. While everyone else was quick to get out onto the track at the start of Q1, Vettel and Webber sat back and left them to it.

In hotter and windier conditions than any previous session so far in Austin this weekend, Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg continued to impress by setting the early pace with a first attempt of 1:43.698s but that was soon history as Fernando Alonso led the next cycle of flying laps with a much faster lap of 1:39.659s for Ferrari ahead of the Williams of Valtteri Bottas, whose team mate Pastor Maldonado had a scare on his own flying lap when he came up on the back of the weaving Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez who is surely certain to get a penalty for baulking a rival.

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Lotus F1's Romain Grosjean went to the top of the times at the midway point with a lap of 1:38.676s with Bottas continuing to improve to stay in second place, now ahead of Alonso who had been pushed down to third. Other drivers were having difficulties getting used to the transformed track conditions, with Jenson Button complaining of oversteer and his McLaren team mate Sergio Perez having trouble getting the front tyres up to temperatures, while Nico Rosberg reported to his pit wall that there was something wrong with the rear of his Mercedes.

The Red Bull pair finally showed their hand, hoping that a single run on hard compound prime tyres would suffice, and indeed Webber shot straight to the top of the timing screens with a lap of 1:38.493s with Vettel just a couple of hundredths further back. But the duo were soon sliding back down the positions as a general move to medium tyres changed the parameters of the afternoon's game, meaning that anyone not reacting fast enough at this point risked being left on the wrong side of the cut-off at the chequered flag.

Lewis Hamilton shot to the top with a lap of 1:37.959s ahead of Gutierrez while Webber put in an improved lap to go third ahead of Bottas, Perez and Heikki Kovalainen. Bottas' final effort was enough to vault him to the top of the final Q1 standings with an impressive 1:37.821s, in stark contrast to his team mate Maldonado who was unable to get in a final clean lap to get himself out of the drop zone in time before the end of the session, meaning that he would be joining the usual suspects from Caterham and Marussia watching the rest of the session.

As for the sixth member of the drop-out club, that unfortunate distinction went to Force India's Adrian Sutil, whose final shot at getting out of trouble ended abruptly in a run-off at turn 1 that indicated a clear problem with the car later identified as a front-right puncture, and sure enough Sutil was only to limp halfway around the circuit before he was forced to pull over and park his stricken car by the side of the track. Sutil's misfortune was very much in Felipe Massa's favour, the Brazilian only just scraping through to Q2 in 16th place with his team mate Fernando Alonso just one spot ahead, the team just getting away with their risky gamble of hanging touch on the harder tyres and not being panicked into a late dash to the options.

Ferrari didn't hang around to return to action in Q2, and this time no one was delaying bolting on the option tyres from the get-go. Jean-Eric Vergne had the distinction of recording the first flier of 1:38.696s but the Toro Rosso was quickly outpaced by Lewis Hamilton who immediately hammered out a time of 1:38.104s - even so, less than four hundredths of a second faster than Bottas who was continuing to shine.

Once again, Vettel and Webber calmly bided their time in the Red Bull garage until it was time to head out with just six minutes remaining in the 15-minute session. They immediately did the business, Vettel's 1:37/065s edging Webber's time by a quarter of a second to put them ahead of new flurry of laps from Alonso, Bottas, Grosjean and Hulkenberg with Hamilton pushed all the way down to seventh and starting to look anxiously in the rear view mirror at the rapidly approaching cut-off to get into Q3.

In fact no one could get the jump on Hamilton and he clung onto that seventh spot to the end of the session to get him into the final pole shootout range - unlike his team mate Rosberg, whose Mercedes seemed off-colour which left him mired in 14th place meaning he would join the Toro Rossos of Ricciardo and Vergne and the Force India of Paul di Resta as well as Jenson Button and Felipe Massa on the bench for Q3, the latter pair never looking in danger of having anything like the sort of form to knock anyone out of the top ten. However, late flyers from Gutierrez, Perez and last-minute Lotus stand-in Kovalainen were sufficient to see the threesome join the others making an appearance in Q3 - Kovalainen's first Q3 appearance since Japan in 2009.

The session got underway with Kovalainen's fellow Finn Bottas leading the charge, joined by Perez and - quick to hit the track for the first time this afternoon - Mark Webber, who put the relatively clear track to good use to throw down the gauntlet to his team mate with a time of 1:36.699s. That proved just a little too rich for Vettel who had to settle for second, 0.152s off his team mate but over a second clear of Grosjean, Perez and Kovalainen.

No one was feeling secure enough to rest in the garage, and with two minutes remaining in Q3 everyone was out on the track for one last effort. Bottas leapt into third place despite a scrappy second corner that saw him lock up and run wide, and that would cost him as improved laps by his rivals meant that he was pushed further and further back down the timing screens to ninth place putting him on the fifth row of the grid alongside Gutierrez.

However the battle for pole remained to the last a private affair between the Red Bull drivers, Mark Webber recording setting purple times in the first and second times as he slashed the pole time to 1:36.441s just as the chequered flag came out, but then finding that even this wasn't enough to ward off Vettel who put in a staggering final sector to go top with a brilliant 1:36.338s in his final lap of the day leaving him a tenth faster that the Australian in a masterful display of "anything you can do, I can do better" by the world champion.

Best of the rest was Grosjean despite a mid-session scare with tyre pressures that forced him to make a rapid return to the pit lane before his final all-important run. Nico Hulkenberg continued his run of qualifying successes by clinching fourth place, with Lewis Hamilton having to settle for fifth place lining up next to Fernando Alonso on the grid, and just ahead of Sergio Perez and a very creditable display from Heikki Kovalainen in eighth place in his first qualifying outing with Lotus.

A Red Bull front row lock-out had never been in doubt, then, and with the pair ending the session three quarters of a second faster than anyone else it's hard to see anyone else getting a look-in come the green flag on Sunday afternoon for the start of the Grand Prix - although that said, a wise man once said that anything can happen in F1, and it usually does. There's no points for pole and the front row doesn't come with any guarantees, no matter how good it looks for Vettel as he takes a well-earned overnight rest before the action recommences.

See full qualifying times.