Australian Grand Prix: Vettel bags pole, Karthikeyan fails to qualify

The Red Bull driver Vettel was almost eight tenth of a second ahead of Lewis Hamilton in a McLaren, with Mark Webber third for Red Bull and Jenson Button fourth for McLaren.

Hispania drivers Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan are not eligible to compete in the race because they were too slow in qualifying, reducing the grid to 22 cars.  While Red Bull continued where they left off last year and McLaren surprised after modest winter testing results, there was disappointment for Ferrari with Fernando Alonso only fifth.

Vettel delivered in grand style with a blistering lap of 1 minute 23.529 seconds for the 5.303-kilometres lap at Albert Park for his 16th career pole. "We are what we are. Great car," Vettel said via team radio before elaborating in the news conference.

"Surely we have the first step. It is a good sign for all of us. We worked very hard to get the RB7 to where we are now," he said. Team principal Christian Horner named Vettel's fast lap "phenomenal" and Webber was "mystified" how he lost 0.866 seconds on the team-mate in his Australian home race. The 2008 champion Hamilton was over the moon how McLaren had managed to bounce back after their testing problems.

"I am thrilled, this is a massive step. The car feels fantastic," said the Briton. Ferrari, by contrast, suffered a first setback in what is to be their revenge season after Alonso lost the 2010 title to Vettel in the very last race because of a poor pit stop strategy.

"We were not super-competitive today. In qualifying we took a very conservative approach. We are happy with the position, (with the) distance from pole we are not happy," said Alonso.  Record champion Michael Schumacher of Mercedes was also subdued as he missed the final round of qualifying in 11th place, freely admitting that "I came here with different expectations."

While Vettel was happy to take pole as in 2010, he warned that victory Sunday was not a foregone conclusion. Vettel had to retire with technical problems leading the race from pole last year, no one knows how the new Pirelli tyres will fare in a real race, and rule changes such as the re-introduction of the Kers power-boosting system and moveable rear wings also add to the uncertainty.

"The key is to finish the race. I am quite confident as we hardly had reliability issues (in testing). Things are looking good but it is a race into the unknown with the new tyres," he said. "We are happy but we are all on zero points." Vitaly Petrov surprised with sixth place for Renault and Japan's Kamui Kobayashi was also better than expected in eighth place for Sauber.  

"A great start to the season," said Kobayashi, adding that it is difficult to race for him after the earthquake and tsunami disaster in his country. "I try my best to give them (the Japanese people) some hope," said Kobayashi.

All cars have "We pray for Japan" stickers at the Australian race weekend and a minute silence will be observed on the grid Sunday for the victims of the earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, and those of the floods in Australia. The F1 season was originally due to start on March 13 in Bahrain, but that race was postponed due to political unrest in the country.

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