Sebastian Vettel was fastest on a wet Interlagos track to take pole position for the Brazilian Grand Prix on Saturday and be in prime position for another record-setting performance.
In Formula 1′s season-ender on Sunday, Vettel can equal Michael Schumacher’s 2004 mark of 13 victories in a year and match the record of nine consecutive wins by Alberto Ascari in 1952-53.
The Red Bull driver, who wrapped up a fourth straight F1 title long ago, was more than half a second ahead of Nico Rosberg of Mercedes in treacherous conditions in a rain-delayed qualifying session.
“It’s great to start from pole,” Vettel said. “Very happy with the laps I had in the end in these tricky conditions. Hopefully we can carry that momentum into the race.”
Fernando Alonso of Ferrari finished third. Vettel’s Red Bull teammate, Mark Webber, who is leaving F1 after Sunday’s race, will start fourth, and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes fifth.
It was Vettel’s ninth pole of the year and 45th all-time. The impressive margin over the rest of the field was telling of his dominance this season.
“I was surprised by the margin. When I was told I was very happy,” he said. “It’s great in these conditions to get it all right. We had very little practice and still got the car where we wanted it to be in the end, so very happy.”
Rosberg, who had led both practice sessions on Friday, said there was nothing he could have done to catch his countryman.
“Surprised about the gap to Sebastian, that’s very big,” Rosberg said. “Definitely it would have been difficult, even getting everything perfect, to come close to him.”
Heavy rain in Sao Paulo forced racing’s governing body FIA to delay the final round of qualifying by 40 minutes after conditions were deemed unsafe because of all the water on the track.
It rained during all three practice sessions, but never as hard as it did in qualifying. Nearly all of the drivers went out immediately after the track opened to try to set a time before the weather deteriorated.
Just before the end of the second round of qualifying, McLaren’s Sergio Perez crashed hard into a retaining wall after losing the back end of his car over a curb and spinning across the track. The Mexican driver was not injured.
McLaren drivers, with a last chance for a podium finish, didn’t make it past the second round — Jenson Button was 15th and Perez 14th.
Home-crowd favorite Felipe Massa will start ninth in his final race with Ferrari before joining Williams.
“Conditions were complicated,” the Brazilian said. “But in the race I’ll give everything I have to make sure I can finish my last race with Ferrari on a high note.”
Two-time champion Alonso said he made a mistake that cost him a chance to start in the front row.
“Being in the first three is good but I’m not totally happy with my lap,” the Spaniard said. “I lost a lot of time. Not obviously to beat Seb, he’s too far in front of us, but I think for second place it was not difficult.”
Webber, moving to sports cars after F1, was fastest in the final practice on Saturday.
“I didn’t feel that quick in qualifying,” he said. “The car felt slow and I was struggling for grip. It was tricky for all of us, but we’re on the second row and we can still do something from there.”
Still at stake in Interlagos is second place in the constructors’ championship. With 43 points up for grabs at Interlagos, Mercedes holds a 15-point lead over Ferrari and a 33-point advantage over Lotus, which will have Romain Grosjean starting sixth and teammate Heikki Kovalainen 11th. Red Bull easily clinched the title in advance.
It will be the last race before F1 adopts new engine rules that are expected to revamp the series next year. Teams will have to switch from 2.4-litre V8 engines to a 1.6-litre V6 turbocharged unit, a move that will demand significant alterations in the design of cars and make predictions nearly impossible.
The Brazilian GP also marks the last race before driver changes at some of F1′s top teams.
World champion Kimi Raikkonen of Finland is leaving Lotus to replace Massa, who is taking over the seat of Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado at Williams. McLaren is replacing Perez with rookie Kevin Magnussen of Denmark. Australian Daniel Ricciardo, from Red Bull’s sister team, Toro Rosso, will fill Webber’s seat.
Maldonado, who may replace Raikkonen at Lotus, didn’t make it past the first round of qualifying and will start only 17th.