MONTREAL — There was no stopping Sebastian Vettel as the Red Bull driver seized pole position for the Canadian Grand Prix, but even the Formula One leader isn’t sure what will happen if the race is drenched in rain.
Menacing black clouds hung over Circuit Gilles Villeneuve for qualifying on Saturday but the rain held off as Vettel posted the quickest lap on the 4.63-kilometre road course of one minute 13.014 seconds, edging the two Ferraris driven by Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
Forecasts call for an 80 per cent chance of downpours all day today, when Vettel will shoot for his first Canadian Grand Prix victory.
“We brought some rain tires and I brought a coat and an umbrella, so I think there’s not much more we can do,” the German said after taking his sixth pole position in seven races this season. “We’ll see how strong the rain will be, how long it will last.
“It’s also predicted to be quite windy. That could make the circuit dry quickly. All the forecasts are saying different things, so the best is to wake up, look outside and see how we are.”
Vettel will start alongside Alonso, the 2006 winner, while Massa will be on the second row beside Mark Webber’s Red Bull.
Lewis Hamilton, the McLaren Mercedes ace who saw his run of three poles in as many tries in Montreal end, will be on the third row with Nico Rosberg of Mercedes GP. The second McLaren of Jenson Button is back on the fourth row with seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes GP.
It was after his fourth place finish at the Canadian Grand Prix last season that Vettel put on a charge to win the F1 drivers’ championship. The 23-year-old carried that momentum into this season with wins in five of the first six races, with his only blip a second place behind Hamilton in China in April.
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is not supposed to be his cup of tea. The Red Bull cars like long, sweeping, skill-testing, high-speed turns, while this circuit has long straightaways leading into sharp turns and chicanes. It is supposed to favour Ferrari and McLaren.
But Vettel went out and shattered the official track record of 1:13.622 set during the 2004 race by Rubens Barrichello, then with Ferrari.
“We know this is not our favourite racetrack, but we put a very strong package together,” Vettel said. “We had some new bits and it seemed to work very well.”
Vettel’s weekend looked ruined when he smashed into a wall during the first practice session Friday morning, but the pit crew scrambled to put it back together and he came back with the quickest lap in the afternoon practice.
It was the second time he’s done that this year. At the Turkish Grand Prix in May, he also crashed on the Friday and won the pole on the Saturday, although he admits “We need to make sure it doesn’t become a habit.”
But while Vettel has demonstrated his speed, the Montreal race is known to be unpredictable, especially in the rain.
Alonso said it will be the first time all the cars are on the track at once in wet conditions this season. F1 switched from Bridgestone to quick-degrading Pirelli tires this year and it will be a first real test of their performance in slick conditions.
Another factor is Red Bull’s on-going problems with the KERS energy efficiency system that has been mandatory since 2009.
While Vettel had no trouble with it so far, Webber missed practice Saturday morning. KERS overheating seems to hit Red Bull randomly.
And both Ferrari and McLaren Mercedes have traditionally done well in Montreal, where each team has 11 victories.
“It’s a good feeling being back to the first positions, fighting for pole positions,” said Alonso. “For Felipe and me, both Ferraris being in the top three is a nice team result and a nice performance so far, but the real job is coming in the race. We need to maximize this privileged starting position and score as many points as possible.”
With 143 points, Vettel leads drivers standings by 58 points over Hamilton and 64 over Webber. Alonso is fifth with 69 points. In the constructors race, Red Bull dominates with 222 points to 161 for McLaren and 93 for Ferrari, whose best result this year was Alonso’s second place two weeks ago in Monaco.
Hamilton has flourished at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve since he posted his first career F1 victory there in 2007. This time, he comes into the race off a humbling performance in Monaco where he had two drive-through penalties and had to apologize for some ill-considered post-race comments about the race stewards.
So far, the McLaren cars haven’t been up to pace, but that could change once real racing starts.
“We are just very slow this weekend,” Hamilton said. “It appears that the other guys have maybe made a step forward.
“I really don’t know. I pushed beyond the limit in my lap, really, because I knew we weren’t as competitive as the guys up front. We’re still not in the worst position, but we would’ve liked to be higher up. My lap was fantastic and this was just the maximum the car was able to do. This weekend we’re just lacking speed compared to previous years.”
Jerome d’Ambrosio did not meet the minimum lap time of 1:18.989, but will be allowed to race following an appeal. The Belgian was using a spare chassis after wrecking his car in practice on Saturday.
All 24 cars will be on the grid.