Vettel defends team after qualifying howler

Sebastian Vettel in his garage at the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix.

Fading title aspirant Sebastian Vettel has defended his team after a crucial qualifying tyre bungle deprived him of a chance to challenge for pole position and instead left him eighth on tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix grid.

Rain had been threatening to disrupt qualifying all afternoon and finally began to sprinkle the track at the end of Q2, and though the track had tried before the start of Q3, the dark clouds had again begun to mass forebodingly over the Suzuka Circuit.

Ferrari attempted to anticipate the downpour by fitting both Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen with intermediate tyres, zigging when the rest of the top 10, including Mercedes, zagged with fresh sets of supersoft tyres.

It took only seconds for the Scuderia’s gamble to be shown up as a blunder, with the track dry enough for Lewis Hamilton to set the fastest time of the weekend with a set of supersoft tyres.

Vettel and Raikkonen sprinted back to the pits to switch to dry tyres, but the rain returned in time for them to begin their own supersoft flying laps, scuppering their chances of qualifying on the second row.

Raikkonen strung together a lap quick enough for fourth, but Vettel struggled, touching the waterlogged kerbs at Spoon on his first attempt and almost crashing into the bridge out of the second Degner the next time round. He qualified ninth, but a penalty to Esteban Ocon one place ahead of him will promotee him to eighthh on the grid.

Downcast after the session, the battered German refused to blame the team for the mistake.

“It was our call,” he said. “When the conditions are like this, then obviously you either get it right or get it wrong, so I’m not blaming anybody.

“I mean, five or six or seven minutes later it started to rain quite heavily, so there was something in the air.

“When it’s like this, then everything becomes a bit of a gamble. Obviously for us it did not work today.”

“As I said, if it starts to rain five, six, seven minutes earlier, then we did a miracle because we were the only clever ones, but if it’s like that, then obviously we’re the only ones who looking stupid. Therefore I defend the decision. It’s our decision as a team.

It was far from the first costly Ferrari error this season, with qualifying mistakes in Singapore and Italy fresh in the team’s memory and key reasons behind Vettel’s rapid fall from realistic title contention.

But the four-time champion denied his team was cracking under the pressure of the championship fight, pointing instead to the fine margins that define wins and losses this season.

“I don’t think there was that much missing,” he said of Ferrari’s Japanese qualifying efforts. “It’s correct that maybe we’ve been on the wrong side a couple of times, but I don’t think there was an awfully big gap or an awful lot to get wrong.

“I think it’s not been going in our favour — but of course we need to understand why if others did something better.”

Behind closed doors Vettel may rue another team error, but even without the crucial mistake he was unlikely to be able to contend for pole position, with Friday practice suggesting the Italian team would be some way off Mercedes on single-lap pace.

The team was similarly down on Mercedes over the practice long runs giving Vettel little hope of the sort of recovery that could breathe any sort of life into his championship hopes in Japan.

“It’s not easy if we’re behind, so let’s see what happens tomorrow,” Vettel said moodily in the face of what is sure to be another heavy defeat to Lewis Hamilton in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.