- Associated Press - Saturday, October 23, 2010

YEONGAM, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - Sebastian Vettel will start from pole position for the Korean Grand Prix after Red Bull earned its second straight 1-2 qualifying performance.

Vettel set a time of 1 minute, 35.585 seconds on Saturday, edging teammate and Formula One championship leader Mark Webber by just seven hundredths of a second.

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, locked with Vettel 14 points behind Webber in the standings, qualified third and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was fourth, setting the stage for an intense battle between the title contenders in Sunday’s race.

The fifth championship hopeful, Jenson Button of McLaren, qualified in seventh, behind Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa.

Vettel was delighted with his ninth pole win of the season _ the most since Michael Schumacher’s 11 in 2001 _ given his practice sessions on both Friday and Saturday were curtailed by technical problems.

“With the difficulties we had in the practice, and on a new track where we were not able to get any rhythm, it was a very good achievement for all of us,” Vettel said.

Webber will start from the “dirty side” of the track, and that disadvantage could be pronounced on a fresh track that is very dusty off the racing line.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Webber said. “Second is still a good position to start the race. Qualifying went to plan today.”

The Red Bull team was particularly strong over the final two sectors of the lap but will be vulnerable in the opening lap of Sunday’s race, given many teams appear to match or better their times on the long straights of the first sector. That meant Alonso loomed as a genuine danger from third.

Fernando will be solid off the line for sure, but its not going to make or break the world championship,” Webber said.

Alonso acknowledged that the Red Bull team again outperformed Ferrari in qualifying, but was enthusiastic by his team’s strong performance.

“P3 was our maximum potential today, which in a way is good because normally qualifying is not our strong part of the weekend, but it seems we are closer to the Red Bulls here, which is good news for tomorrow’s race,” Alonso said.

Renault’s Robert Kubica, who topped the time sheets in Saturday morning practice, qualified in eighth, ahead of Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher and Williams’ Rubens Barrichello.

The latter two, long-time antagonists since their uneven partnership at Ferrari, had another dispute, with the Brazilian accusing the seven-time world champion of blocking him during the second part of qualifying.

Schumacher apologized to Barrichello in the pits after qualifying, but that cut little ice with his former No. 2.

“He just came to apologize that the team did not tell him, but he had mirrors,” Barrichello said. “I am a little bit sad.”

McLaren’s performance was unimpressive, given the clear speed advantage it had in the opening sector of the lap. The odds of either Hamilton or Button challenging for the title lengthened further after Saturday’s showing.

“It’s disappointing. The track temperature was quite cold and that worked against us,” team principal Martin Whitmarsh said. “But we have got a fast race car and we are going to give it our best shot.”

Rain is forecast for Saturday night into Sunday morning, and though it is likely to have stopped by race time, it should wash some of the rubber off the track, while also potentially bringing oil to the surface from the newly laid asphalt.

That could make tire strategy vital in the race. Drivers had complained that the dirty track was causing premature tire graining.

All the top qualifiers must start on the soft-compound tires they used in qualifying, so they’ll likely need to pit early. That raised the prospect of some teams employing a rare two-stop strategy should the harder tires not last through to the finish of the 55-lap race.

“A two-stop strategy is certainly worthy of consideration,” Bridgestone director Hirohide Hamashima said.

“If the rain that some predict does arrive, then everything gets very interesting indeed as no one knows what to expect.”