BARCELONA // "You probably won't get to get to drive a car like this too often around here, so go and enjoy it..." Such was Red Bull Racing sporting director Christian Horner's final instruction as Mark Webber prepared to qualify for today's Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona - and the Australian did exactly as he'd been told.
Webber was quickest throughout the session and a 1min 19.995sec lap put him 0.106sec clear of teammate Sebastian Vettel as Red Bull maintained their stranglehold on Formula One qualifying. Even by their own recently exalted standards, however, its margin of supremacy was huge. Closest rival Lewis Hamilton's McLaren was a further 0.728sec adrift. Webber was swift to pay tribute to his crew's efforts. Every team has brought significant chassis upgrades to Spain, but Red Bull have done more than most. Look closely and very little beyond the RB6's front wing has been carried over from the previous race in China.
"I think the guys have slept for about five hours during the past two nights," Webber said after taking the third pole of his Formula One career. "I'd like to dedicate today's result to them." There is rarely much to choose between the Red Bull drivers, but Vettel has often enjoyed a slight edge in terms of qualifying pace. "It's nice to get one back on him," Webber said. "I put together two good, solid laps and was marginally quicker after the first run. It's nice to be in that position - trying to build upon an existing advantage rather than playing catch-up."
He can also take comfort from the fact that the past nine Spanish GPs have been won by the driver who qualified on pole. Vettel has promised to do what he can to alter that sequence - but the frequent straightforwardness of Barcelona races could yet be scrambled by the weather, with showers forecast for this afternoon's proceedings. "Our position might look comfortable," Vettel said, "but there might be some rain and we know how quickly things can change."
The German will also have his work cut out fending off Hamilton, who will start from the cleaner side of the track and has the benefit of McLaren's pioneering F-duct, a driver-activated vent that boosts straightline performance - a useful asset on a circuit with a long run down to the first corner. For all Red Bull's recent endeavours, they have not yet developed a similar system of their own. "What can I tell you?" Hamilton said. "The Red Bulls are ridiculously fast through the quick corners. They have more downforce efficiency than other teams.
"Although I knew they'd be quick, I didn't expect them to be quite this far ahead. They probably aren't as strong as us down the straights, though, so we'll see how the start goes." Local favourite Fernando Alonso will start fourth for Ferrari, ahead of world championship leader Jenson Button, although Ferrari has been fined $20,000 (Dh73,400) for releasing Alonso from the pits "in an unsafe manner" - he almost collided with Nico Rosberg's Mercedes in the pit lane during the session.
Michael Schumacher has recaptured a hint of his old form and will line up sixth - his best performance of the season and the first time he has outqualified team-mate Rosberg. Robert Kubica continues to flatter the Renault R30 - logic dictates that the car should be ninth on a good day, but the Pole outpaced Rosberg and the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa to annex seventh. His team were on similarly brisk form. Vitaly Petrov crashed the second Renault heavily during Saturday morning's final free practice, but the mechanics did a sterling job to get it fixed in time for qualifying and the Russian qualified 14th, but will start 19th after receiving a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.