Sebastian Vettel has said that the best he could have done in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix was to move to the inside of row two, with Mercedes back to their competitive best at Suzuka.
The German, who cruised to victory in Singapore less than a week ago, had no answer to Mercedes this time around, as Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton locked out the front row for round 14. Although a red flag, for Daniil Kvyat's accident, denied all ten runners the chance to improve their times before the session ended, Vettel conceded that he was unlikely to have challenged for the front of the grid.
“I don't know if [Mercedes] had any margin, but we had a bit so you could argue over a couple of tenths, but the bottom line is that they are back to the competitiveness that, unfortunately, we have seen all year,” the four-time world champion acknowledged, “I think tomorrow they will be the ones to beat, quite clearly, but we will try everything we can – and maybe we can be a bit closer – but, for sure, our main rivals should be Williams and Red Bull.
“[Qualifying] was a bit tricky and I didn't get into the rhythm straight away. I was happy with Q1 but, in Q2, I wasn't happy with my first run on the medium tyres and then, as it turned out, only in Q3 did the car come alive – I was a lot happier and I think that lap time was more competitive.
“In any case, however, I think there was only one more position to gain, with [Valtteri] Bottas in P3 but, obviously, we didn't have the last run. I think it was fairly close between Williams and ourselves and probably the Red Bulls as well.”
Completing just one run in Q1 allowed Ferrari to save a set of tyres on Vettel's car for the race but, with dry preparations being crammed into the hour of practice before qualifying, a lot of unknowns remain for Sunday. Vettel admitted that the rush had contributed to his slow start to the day – he trailed Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen in both Q1 and Q2 – and expects a tough battle with the Williams pair in the race.
“I think [Friday's rain] affected everyone and, of course, you don't get a lot of stuff done,” he noted, “Yesterday was wet so there is very little you could take into today. We got some information in FP3, but we were not yet where we wanted to be in any way. But we managed to recover and were a lot happier in quali.
“There was not that much time [to run primes] in the morning, so we went for one longer run on the options and one shorter one. Then we ran out of time to be completely honest. I think other people did run the harder tyre, some for a long run and some for a shorter one, but fortunately we had the pace in Q1 to only run one set and go through straight away.
“The race is long and I don't know the weather for tomorrow, but it could be anything – we are close to the sea, so you never know. I think the expectation is mostly dry, however, and the Williams is difficult to pass. If we are quicker, then we have a chance and, for sure, one of the first chances we will get is at the start, but the run down to turn one isn't that long. After that, with strategy, you can try some things but I think it will be close tomorrow.”