SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel overcame more reliability problems to steer his struggling Red Bull onto the front row of the grid for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday.
Second place in qualifying at a wet Sepang raised the German’s spirits after he was forced to retire early in the Australian season-opener two weeks ago following dismal pre-season testing.
The problems followed the quadruple champion to Malaysia, with a new electronic power control unit required after issues during Friday practice and the German then suffering a fault with the energy store after three laps of qualifying on Saturday.
A simple reset solved the problem and he reveled in the wet conditions to slice away at the advantage of the pace-setting Mercedes, missing out on pole to Lewis Hamilton by just 0.055 seconds.
“At the beginning of Q1 (the first phase), the heartbeat was rising very quickly when we realized there was an issue. I came in, we restarted the car and that seemed to solve the problem,” Vettel, last year’s winner in Malaysia from pole, told reporters.
”After that it was fine. It was good to go out and get another feel in the wet conditions. Q3 was not perfect. I would have loved to have a second go. My first attempt, I felt there was time to gain here and there. It was very close, too close.
“But to split the Mercedes was very good for us. All-in-all we can be happy, after a tough winter we’re getting stronger.”
Red Bull principal Christian Horner said engineers would investigate what went wrong with Vettel’s car, which he said fixed itself and remained stable for the remainder of the session, which had been delayed by 50 minutes because of rain.
Despite the early problems, Vettel almost snatched an unlikely pole but missed out on crossing the line for a final flying lap by a fraction of a second.
“If Seb would have had a clean last lap, he just got traffic, we would have had a crack at it,” Horner told the BBC.
“But overall, it’s better than we expected coming here.”
Vettel was way off the early pace set by Hamilton and his Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg who had been 1.5 seconds quicker than the world champion in the first stage of qualifying when the track was drying out after an initial heavy downpour.
But as the rain returned, so did Vettel’s competitiveness as he moved closer and closer to the top of the timesheets before settling for second.
Although he acknowledged it would be difficult to challenge the Mercedes duo in Sunday’s race, the fighter in him refused to rule it out.
“Mercedes has the best package,” the 26-year-old said.
”Its difficult to beat them on the day but its not impossible. It would be quite sad to wake up in the morning thinking that you can only finish second or fifth or eighth. We’re here to win.
”We know that in the rain anything is possible. There is not so much rain forecast (for Sunday) but there’s always a chance around here.
“Obviously I haven’t done a race since Brazil last year so I‘m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Reporting by Patrick Johnston, editing by Alan Baldwin