MANAMA (Reuters) - Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel thanked his sleep-starved Red Bull mechanics on Saturday for helping him take his first pole position of the season at a Bahrain Grand Prix mired in controversy.
The 24-year-old German will have McLaren’s championship leader Lewis Hamilton alongside him on the front row for Sunday’s race, the fourth round of the season, which will go ahead against a backdrop of violent clashes and anti-government protests elsewhere on the Gulf island.
Vettel’s Australian team mate Mark Webber was third quickest and shares the second row with McLaren’s Jenson Button.
The pole was the 31st for Vettel, who took a record 15 last season but had failed to get on the front row in the first three races of this year.
He celebrated his achievement at the desert track, even if there appeared to be few paying spectators present to witness it, with his familiar single finger in the air - a gesture absent so far this season.
“This one I completely owe it to the team,” said the champion, who had a scare in the first phase when he dropped dangerously close to the cut-off point after assuming he had done enough.
”The boys, I don’t think they’ve had much sleep in the first four races. It was a tough weekend in China and now here they seriously have a lack of sleep.
“The last two weekends in particular, here and China, I don’t know how they managed, how they do it. They get hardly any sleep, probably an hour or two or three on average every night and still they’re full of energy and willing to work even harder.”
The first three races have seen three different winners, without a Red Bull driver on the top step, and Vettel has a good chance of making it four in a race that is going ahead despite worldwide condemnation and calls for it to be cancelled.
“I am very happy with the job that we’ve done,” said Hamilton, who has finished third for three races in a row after poles in Australia and Malaysia. “Probably one of my best qualifying sessions.”
Qualifying went ahead as scheduled shortly after news broke that a protester had been found dead in a rural village after clashes with police on Friday evening.
Crowds of masked protesters later hurled petrol bombs at police, who fired tear gas back. A crowd of 7,000 marchers held banners calling for democratic reforms.
The protesters, kept away from the circuit some 30km south from Manama, are mostly from the majority Shi‘ite Muslim community and blame the Sunni ruling elite for shutting them out of opportunities, jobs and housing.
Members of the Force India and Sauber teams have been caught up in incidents on the highway involving youths throwing petrol bombs, and Force India decided to miss second practice on Friday to ensure staff were back in hotels before nightfall.
In what triggered a storm of comment on Twitter, the Force India cars were almost invisible on the feed provided by Formula One Management on Saturday, despite Britain’s Paul Di Resta qualifying 10th.
Ecclestone denied Force India had been punished for their actions on Friday.
“Not at all,” the billionaire Briton told Reuters. “I asked them (the television people) to go and have a look. They missed two other people. It was simple. They are interested in who is going to be on pole. Nobody cares if someone is ninth or 11th, only the people that are watching a particular team.”
Germany’s Nico Rosberg, who took his first win after 111 starts at the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend in what was also the first in 57 years for a works Mercedes, qualified fifth but saved a set of tyres for the race.
His team mate Michael Schumacher, the seven-times world champion, will start 17th after being slowed by a rear wing problem that allowed Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen to leapfrog him and get into the second session.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo put his Toro Rosso in sixth place, the best qualifying of his fledgling career.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso qualified ninth, with Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa 14th.
“In all honesty, this result matches our expectations going into the session,” said team principal Stefano Domenicali. “I expect it will be a very hard race for the cars, the drivers and the teams.”
Editing by Clare Fallon and Stephen Wood