Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel has moved a step closer to clinching a third consecutive world title - which would make him the youngest triple world champion in the history of the sport - by qualifying fourth for the Brazilian Grand Prix, four places ahead of his title rival Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), while McLaren's Lewis Hamilton sealed pole. All the drivers used Pirelli's P Zero White medium tyre to qualify, which has been nominated along with the P Zero Silver hard for the final race of the 2012 season.
The weather was a major talking point during qualifying, with a rain shower just before the start of qualifying and ambient temperatures of 23 degrees centigrade along with 25 degrees of track temperature. More rain is expected for the race tomorrow, with a 60% chance of precipitation currently forecast, which will put the same accent on tyre strategy that played a major part in qualifying today.
The Caterham, HRT and Marussia drivers as well as Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) and Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) all started the first qualifying session using the P Zero White medium, on a track that was damp but with no rain falling. Force India's Nico Hulkenberg instead started on intermediate tyres while many of the other drivers went out on the hard tyre, some completing long runs to go all the way to the end of the session. Several drivers also used the medium tyre, while Hamilton was quickest on the hard tyre. Just the McLarens, Ferraris, and Red Bulls - as well as the Lotus of Romain Grosjean - used the hard tyres only in the first session.
No more rain fell during the second session and track temperature climbed to 34 degrees centigrade in bright sunshine, with both Ferraris heading out on the hard tyre and Alonso going quickest in the early stages, before switching to the medium tyre. Vettel then set the fastest time of the session using a set of new mediums.
The final top 10 shoot out was run just on the medium tyres in warm and dry conditions. Hamilton set a 1:12.850 lap on his very first run. He was beaten by Red Bull's Mark Webber on the second run, but then claimed pole back in the final seconds with a time of 1:12.458: his 26th career pole position, ahead of his team mate Jenson Button.
Button also set fastest time in the final free practice session this morning, with a benchmark of 1m13.188s on the P Zero White tyre, just 0.057s ahead of Vettel.
Paul Hembery: "With the weather conditions looking so uncertain, tyre strategy becomes all the more important. This impacts not only on the choice of tyres - which compounds to use and when - but also an accurate assessment of the crossover points: in other words when it becomes quicker to change over from a wet to a dry tyre and vice versa. With all the free practice sessions up to now having been held in the dry, the teams will have to analyse whatever information they gain extremely quickly in order to succeed. We expect around a second per lap difference between the hard and the medium compound here, but for now nobody knows how much of a chance the teams will have to use them during the race. As well as ensuring the best possible start to the race, qualifying was also a valuable chance for the teams to gather information about tyre behaviour in variable conditions. This is data that could be crucial not only for the outcome of the race, but the whole championship. We saw lots of different strategies in qualifying today, with the teams having to balance their immediate needs against conserving the tyres that they feel will be most useful. With the two title protagonists four places apart in fourth and eighth, it'd hard to make any predictions. Congratulations to Lewis Hamilton and McLaren for pole position and the front row of the grid."
Check out our Qualifying gallery, here.