He admitted that he had hit a wall with his right rear wheel, but after one of the great qualifying laps of the season Sebastian Vettel’s car bore the scars of contact on both sides as testimony to just how hard he had to wring his red race car’s neck in search of the pace to rein in Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.
Though the four-time champion believes that Ferrari have nothing to fear from any of the remaining tracks on the calendar, as he battles with Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes for a fifth crown, this one is crucial to his quest.
This, of all of them, is the one at which Ferrari should have a clear advantage, just as they did in Monaco and Hungary. With Hamilton having won three of the last four races to take the points lead for the first time all season, Vettel desperately needs a big result.
Yet Ferrari struggled all day Friday and again in Saturday’s practice session. And when the first of the three qualifying sessions was over, a rash of improvements had shoved him down to 12th place, one behind team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, as Hamilton chased the rampant Red Bulls. Ferrari were well off their pace.
Shaking with adrenaline rush after he had annexed the 49th pole position of his career, Vettel admitted that he was surprised.
“We struggled yesterday and this morning,” he said, “and again in Q1. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to find a second. But then in Q2 the car was like a switch, I could just turn it on.
“I brushed the wall in Turn 19 on my second run – actually, it was a big hit! – and that left me with vibrations in the final corner, but I made it home okay.
“It was a scrappy first session yesterday but the feeling was there in the car and we just needed to get it out. And that’s what we did tonight.”
Ferrari’s engineers, both at the track and back at the factory in Maranello, had run through numerous set-ups, as test driver Charles Leclerc (who is set to win this year’s Formula 2 title and will race for Sauber in F1 in 2018) undertook countless runs in the simulator. “It was a phenomenal the amount of work they did,” Vettel said.
“We were caught off guard yesterday, when the car wouldn’t behave the way we wanted it to. But it was very, very important for us to answer all the questions we didn’t have time to sort out. I think the guys here went to bed about lunchtime! But then the conditions this evening helped us and the car really came alive as the track…