ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton's slim hopes of winning a second drivers' championship got a boost Saturday when he secured pole position for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, holding off the Red Bull duo of Mark Webber and two-time defending Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, clocked 1 minute, 40.630 seconds on the 3.5-mile Yas Marina circuit Saturday, 0.348 seconds quicker than Webber.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, 13 points behind Vettel in the drivers' standings with three races remaining, slumped to seventh. The Spaniard has struggled all weekend with pace and last-minute changes by his team have failed to improve the car's performance.
Pastor Maldonado of Williams will start fourth followed by Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus and Jenson Button of McLaren.
"I'm very excited," said Hamilton, who won last year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after Vettel crashed out. "It's the first time for a long time we've been ahead of the Red Bulls at the start of the race. The team has done a fantastic job all weekend. I don't know why the car works so well here ... I guess it just suits the track."
Vettel's qualifying session was anything but routine for the 25-year-old German, with brake problems limiting his first session to only two laps. He also grazed the wall at one point later in the session, briefly lost control in one turn and then saw his car come to a stop on the track when the session was over. He said it wasn't clear why it stopped, although he said the brake problems had been sorted out.
Still, Vettel said he was happy to be third on the grid.
"I think what we had in qualifying was still pretty good and competitive," he said. "Obviously, some boxes will never be ticked so we won't get the answers we wanted to. But we found a compromise nevertheless."
He also dismissed suggestions that he would change his strategy after Alonso qualified in seventh — a difficult place on the grid because the Abu Dhabi track is traditionally not conducive to passing.
"We have to try to win the race. You can't go around looking at one guy particular," said Vettel, referring to Alonso. "We go for the fastest race. At the moment, Lewis is ahead of us. We will try and hunt him down."
Vettel has won the past four races to overtake Alonso at the top, and is the clear favorite to pick up a third title. He leads the Spaniard, while Raikkonen is 67 points back in third. Webber is another six points back and Hamilton another two points back.
Vettel can't win the title this weekend, but another victory and a strong performance at the U.S. Grand Prix would make it difficult for anyone to topple him.
Webber and Hamilton have a slim chance in the championship race, needing to win every race and hope Vettel doesn't finish.
Hamilton's strong showing on Saturday has kept his slim title hopes going, with McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh noting it's an uphill battle.
"We have three races. Let's try to win them," Whitmarsh told The Associated Press. "You have to have fairly poor performances from our competitors even if you win the last three races ... Looks like Sebastian might have a bit of a problem. If we score 25 points tomorrow and Sebastian scores none, then we will start to get a little more jumpy about it."
Hamilton, who won the F1 title in 2008, will be moving next season to Mercedes, which made a lucrative offer that McLaren couldn't match.
If Vettel wins this year's title, he would join Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as the only drivers to win three championships in a row. Vettel would be the youngest to achieve that feat.
The team can clinch its third consecutive constructors' title in Abu Dhabi if Vettel wins and Webber finishes no worse than eighth, or the two finish second and third. Red Bull leads Ferrari by 91 points, and McLaren is another 10 points behind.