AUSTIN — Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel continued his amazing season Saturday at Circuit of the Americas, crossing the finish line as the last driver to post a qualifying lap and knocking teammate Mark Webber off the pole for today’s United States Grand Prix.
The Red Bull ace clocked a final lap of 1 minute, 36.338 seconds at the end of the third qualifying session, edging Webber’s 1:36.441.
“I didn’t think I’d done enough; you need to improve,” Webber said. “Sometimes you’re happy that you’ve given your best and you’re on the front row, but today one slipped through [my] fingers.
“Well done to Seb, obviously. He put the three sectors together. I put 2 1/2 together and just dropped it in the last sector.”
Lotus driver Romain Grosjean qualified third at 1:37.155, followed by Nico Hulkenberg of Sauber, Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
The highest top speed recorded during qualifying was 195.3 mph by Paul di Resta, who will start 12th for Force India. The speed trap is near the end of the long backstretch in the second of the track’s three sectors.
Di Resta’s cousin and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti announced this week that he has been forced to retire from racing after suffering injuries in a crash at the end of an Indy car doubleheader last month in Houston.
Vettel will be going for his eighth consecutive victory today, which would break the Formula One record for the longest winning streak within a single season. Michael Schumacher won seven in a row in 2004, including the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis.
If Vettel wins in Austin and the season finale next week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he will tie Schumacher’s record of 13 wins in a season.
“I think maybe I’m not that clever, so I’m not trying to think that much about these things [records],” Vettel said. “Lately I seem to have succeeded, so I think it’s not the right mindset to go into the race thinking about a higher target than just the race.”
The German also is looking for a bit of redemption. Vettel led 41 of the 56 laps last year in the inaugural Austin race, only to be passed for the win by Hamilton.
“No regrets [about] last year,” Vettel said. “It was a tight battle with Lewis. I think at the end he just was a little quicker. ... It was a long time ago.
“I’m looking forward to [today]. I like the circuit. Definitely, if you have the chance to win, you want to go for it, so at the moment, things are looking good.”
Vettel was quickest in Saturday morning’s final practice, posting a fast lap of 1:36.733 to beat Webber by two-tenths of a second and third-place Hamilton by more than three-tenths.
Vettel clinched his fourth consecutive championship with his victory two races ago in India, so he’s feeling much less pressure as the season winds down. But he’s going for records and said anything can happen.
“It’s a long race — with tires could be tricky. Strategy should be more than clear, but then again with these tires you never know,” Vettel said.
Pirelli brought its hard and medium tires to Austin. Unless it rains, drivers are required to use at least one set of each compound.
The hard and medium compounds were last used together at Suzuka, and they were the choice at the fast, historic tracks at Silverstone, Spa Francorchamps and Monza.
Heikki Kovalainen, filling in for the injured Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus, qualified eighth for his first start of the year. Lotus and Sauber joined Red Bull as the only teams to place both of their cars in the top 12, but Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez will drop from 10th to 20th after receiving a penalty for impeding another driver during time trials.
Notably eliminated after the second qualifying session were 2009 world champion Jenson Button of McLaren, Nico Rosberg of Mercedes and Felipe Massa of Ferrari. Button will drop three spots and start 16th today after a penalty earned during practice Friday.
Among those eliminated in the first session were Adrian Sutil of Force India and Pastor Maldonado of Williams.
MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906.