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Vettel takes pole at Abu Dhabi GP

Updated: November 12, 2011, 11:48

Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany, center, pole position , McLaren Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain, left, second fastest time and McLaren Mercedes driver Jenson Button of Britain, third fastest time, wave after the qualifying session at the Yas Marina racetrack , in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates(AP) Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel took pole position at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Saturday on the final lap of qualifying, matching Nigel Mansell's record of 14 poles in a season and putting him in prime position to equal the record for most wins.

The Red Bull driver clocked 1 minute, 38.481 seconds at the Yas Marina circuit, 0.14 seconds quicker than McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton who had dominated the final practice session and was leading qualifying until the last lap.

Hamilton's teammate Jenson Button will start Sunday's race third alongside Vettel's teammate Mark Webber on the second row.

Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa continued to struggle, and will start on the third row in fifth and sixth.

After Vettel finished his last lap, the team yelled over the radio "Brilliant, Mr. Mansell'' to which the 24-year-old German responded "Ich liebe dich'' or "I love you''.

"I was very happy to get pole because it was difficult. We weren't sure about it and positively surprised when we crossed the line,'' Vettel said, adding that Mansell's record wasn't something the team had discussed. "He obviously took two races less to achieve the same but still it's something special. Yeah, it's a great feeling for sure.''

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner called Vettel's matching Mansell's pole record a "tremendous achievement.''

"An unbelievable final lap from Sebastian, to get the pole in what was a really exciting qualifying tonight,'' Horner said. "It's a remarkable achievement for him to equal Nigel Mansell's 14 in a single season, which by coincidence also happened to be achieved in an Adrian Newey designed car in 1992 with a Renault engine.''

Hamilton, who had driven flawlessly Friday and avoided the penalties that has cost him in early races, appeared poised to take pole and was leading going into the third session of qualifying. But the 2008 world champion said he felt the car was "understeering'' toward the end of qualifying session and made it difficult to challenge Vettel.

"I'm happy today to be in the front row and to not have any penalty is a blessing,'' said Hamilton, who was penalized three grid places for ignoring yellow flags at the Indian Grand Prix and has sparred repeatedly with race stewards this season.

"In the first qualifying session, the car was looking good but got to Q2 and I felt the car was understeering a little bit,'' he said. "That is the limitations of the car. I was pushing as hard as I could but couldn't improve on my last lap.''

Initially, it didn't appear like this would be Vettel's weekend.

He started slow in the first practice on Friday and finished sixth. Then, he made a rare mistake on Turn 1 in the second practice, crashing out and finishing fourth.

"I wasn't happy with the car and myself. I went off (the track) and had a mistake,'' Vettel said of Friday's practice sessions.

"The balance of the car wasn't as good as it could be and I felt there was more in the car and we just had to get to it,'' he said. "I felt much better this afternoon and was getting better later on in qualifying. In Q2, we were close. I felt that in Q3 if we got everything together, we would have a chance.''

Now Vettel has the opportunity to add another record to what has been one of the most dominant Formula One season performances since his compatriot Michael Schumacher was racing at his peak.

The two-time Formula One champion Vettel has already won twice in Abu Dhabi, and another victory this weekend will leave him needing to take the checkered flag in the final race of the season in Brazil to match Schumacher's record of 13 wins in a season.

For the rest of the field, it will be a fight for second. Button has a 13-point lead over Alonso coming into this weekend. Webber is 19 points back and Hamilton 38 points behind.

Button appeared to be in strong position to tighten his grip on second but Alonso - who lost the drivers' title last year when he finished seventh last year in Abu Dhabi - continued to struggle.

"Third isn't a bad place from which to start - hopefully we'll get one over on the Red Bulls tomorrow,'' Button said.

Both Alonso and Massa have struggled all weekend to control their car, with the Spaniard Alonso crashing in Friday's second practice and before that repeatedly going off the track in the first session. But Alonso said he expected the team would perform better on Sunday.

"We are more or less where we expected to be going into the session,'' Alonso said. "All year long, with a few rare exceptions, McLaren and Red Bull are stronger than us on Saturday, while on Sunday the situation is usually different, with the gaps between us being much closer.

"We know we can fight for the podium, but to succeed, we will have to do everything perfectly, beginning with the start and our strategy.''


Follow Michael Casey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mcasey1

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