Vettel puts Red Bull on pole, Hamilton alongside; Alonso qualifies third
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel put himself in the best possible position to claim the Formula One title by beating his three rivals to pole position in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Saturday.
The 23-year-old German, celebrating his 10th pole of 2010 and a record-equalling 15th in a single season for his team, could do no more at a circuit where he won last year and where he will probably have to win again to become the sport's youngest champion.
Even then it may not be enough.
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who is 24 points behind championship leader Fernando Alonso and must win while hoping his rivals fail to score, will be second on the grid with nothing to lose.
Ferrari's Alonso, the Spaniard who is eight points ahead of Red Bull's Mark Webber and 15 clear of Vettel, was sitting pretty after hauling himself to third place in the closing seconds under floodlights while Webber sank to fifth.
If the finishing order stays the same as the start then Alonso will become the sport's youngest triple champion -- meaning he need not overtake anyone on Sunday if he keeps position at the start.
He did not expect such a straightforward outcome, or easy afternoon, however.
"We know the situation, we know the four contenders. Anything can happen in the race," Alonso told reporters.
"It was a tight session so now we are looking forward to tomorrow and see what happens," said Vettel, looking forward to the unprecedented final four-way showdown at the anti-clockwise Yas Marina circuit.
"Ten poles in qualifying I think is a great effort and shows how good our car is."
Alonso need only finish second in the daylight-to-darkness race, regardless of who is ahead of him on the track, and third if Vettel wins. Webber's disappointing performance was just what the Spaniard wanted.
"Third place is good for us," said the 29-year-old, with the King of Spain and Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo among the VIP audience. "We just need one more day."
Australian Webber, who starts behind McLaren's outgoing title-holder Jenson Button in fourth place, now has an uphill battle to become his country's first champion since Alan Jones 30 years ago.
"I could not get the pace. We are still in the hunt, that's the main thing. It is disappointing but there is still a long way to go. The fat lady has not sung yet," said Webber.
His team boss Christian Horner recognised there was work to do.
"The job for Sebastian is quite clear. Sebastian has to get his head down and get on with it," he said. "Mark has to beat Alonso.
"The degradation on the option tyre is going to be a key factor and we looked pretty good on that. It's going to be a long race."
Hamilton returned to the front row for the first time since Belgium in August.
"We have nothing to lose and everything to gain so we are quite chilled and happy," said the 2008 world champion. "I'm just here to enjoy myself and enjoy driving the car."
The Briton had a scare, and damaged the car, in the second phase of qualifying when he drove straight over a camera post on a corner to avoid a tangle with Ferrari's Brazilian Felipe Massa.
Red Bull have already won the constructors' title after finishing one-two in Brazil last weekend.