MANAMA, March 13 – Cool young German Sebastian Vettel stole the limelight from returning legend Michael Schumacher and three other world champions when he seized pole for Sunday's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.The 22-year-old rising star picked up where he left off last season, when he won the closing race in Abu Dhabi, by clocking a best lap of one minute and 54.101 seconds to take the prime starting position in Saturday’s final qualifying.
It will be his sixth pole.
This was one-tenth of a second better than second-placed Brazilian Felipe Massa, of Ferrari, making his first race weekend appearance since an horrific accident in Hungary last August.
It was also more than a second quicker than fourth-placed Lewis Hamilton of McLaren and 1.4 seconds better than Schumacher’s best Q3 lap for Mercedes – a demonstration of pace that showed Vettel and Red Bull will start Sunday’s 49-laps race with a clear advantage in raw speed.
Vettel praised his hard-working crew, saying: "I am happy to be on pole, but it is thanks to the team.
"They have done a great job and not had much sleep for the last few weeks.
"For me it is a big surprise and it is clear there are four teams out in front with close performances. So it is thanks to the long night of work the boys did that we have the speed and pole position."
Vettel is 19 years younger than Schumacher and showed his vim and youth as he blitzed to the best time in the final seconds of a thrilling session.
Schumacher, making his comeback after three years, wound up in seventh place and was outpaced by not only Vettel, but also his Mercedes team-mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg, who qualified fifth.
Schumacher said: "I didn’t really find it easy to find the peak performance and speed of the car in the time available. But I am happy because we are working well as a team. It is a long race and the season is even longer."
It was a better day for Schumacher’s old team Ferrari who finished with Massa second on the grid and new boy two-times champion Fernando Alonso third.
Massa said: "It’s very nice to be back racing and being competitive. I am happy to be back after such a difficult time. I was watching on TV (when I was injured), but it’s much better to be in the car."
Rosberg said: "I am disappointed to be honest, because I was hoping for pole. I really thought we could do it."
Hamilton won McLaren’s private battle of the two British champions by taking fourth with team-mate and defending champion Jenson Button down in eighth after a stressful session.
Button admitted: "It was a struggle. It was getting better on every run, but I did struggle with front locking this afternoon. Something felt wrong."
Hamilton said: "I was surprised with that result. We don’t have the same pace as Red Bull and Ferrari, so it is not that bad at all. To be honest, I am overwhelmed with fourth!"
Vettel’s Red Bull team-mate Australian Mark Webber was sixth and Pole Robert Kubica ninth for Renault with German Adrian Sutil taking 10th place for Force India.
On a fine, dry and hot day at the Sakhir circuit, where the air temperatures touched 33 degrees Celsius, there were few surprises and the three new teams, Virgin, Lotus and Hispania, struggled valiantly as they battled to fill the last six spots on the 24-car grid.