| Vettel defends Ferrari as tyre gamble falls flat

Suzuka – Sebastian Vettel has refused to point fingers after Ferrari calamitously chose the wrong tyres in Japanese Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.

Ferrari’s decision to send Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen out on intermediates at the start of the top-10 shootout at Suzuka backfired as the rain they were banking on held off for several crucial minutes.

“I’m not blaming anybody,” insisted Vettel, who slumped to eighth, leaving his fading Formula One title hopes hanging by a thread.

“If it starts to rain five, six, seven minutes earlier, we did a miracle,” added the German, who trails Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton by 50 points with just 125 left in play.

“Because we’re the only clever ones. But if it’s like that obviously we’re the only ones looking stupid. Therefore I defend the decision – it’s our decision as a team.”

Vettel, whose dreams of pipping Hamilton to five world titles now look all but over, had barely left the garage on the harder compound tyres when he informed Ferrari of the error over team radio.

“Obviously it wasn’t wet enough to start with and then the rain didn’t come, it came later,” said a deflated Vettel, who qualified ninth but was bumped up to eighth after Esteban Ocon received a three-place penalty.

“I think we expected that there was more rain coming and obviously it didn’t. Then it was the wrong decision, but when the conditions are like this then obviously you either get it right or you get it wrong.”

A rampant Hamilton, who stormed to a record-extending 80th pole, could not resist a dig at his rival.

“The Ferraris pulled out of the garage on the inters and I honestly didn’t think it was the right decision,” said the Briton, who has won five of the last six races to stand on the cusp of retaining his world title.

Things got worse for a desperate Vettel when he skidded off the track on his only flying lap on slicks to blow any chance of putting pressure on Hamilton.

The German, who won four world titles with Red Bull from 2010 to 2013, became prickly when further grilled about the decision to use the harder tyres.

“Does it matter? What does it matter?” he snapped. “It was our call and obviously for us it didn’t work out today.”

As a season that began with such promise appeared to be on the brink of collapse, Vettel admitted Ferrari had been under pressure to come up with something special at Suzuka.

“When it’s like this everything becomes a bit of a gamble,” he said. “But I don’t think there was an awful big gap. This is not the position we deserve to be in.”

Starting grid for the Japanese Grand Prix after qualifying on Saturday:

1st row 

Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes), Valtteri Bottas (FIN/Mercedes) 

2nd row 

Max Verstappen (NED/Red Bull-TAG Heuer), Kimi Raikkonen (FIN/Ferrari) 

3rd row 

Romain Grosjean (FRA/Haas-Ferrari), Brendon Hartley (NZL/Toro Rosso-Honda) 

4th row 

Pierre Gasly (FRA/Toro Rosso-Honda), Sebastian Vettel (GER/Ferrari)

5th row 

Sergio Perez (MEX/Force India-Mercedes), Charles Leclerc (MON/Sauber-Ferrari)

6th row 

Esteban Ocon (FRA/Force India-Mercedes), Kevin Magnussen (DEN/Haas-Ferrari) 

7th row 

Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP/Renault), Lance Stroll (CAN/Williams-Mercedes) 

8th row

Daniel Ricciardo (AUS/Red Bull-TAG Heuer), Nico Hulkenberg (GER/Renault) 

9th row 

Sergey Sirotkin (RUS/Williams-Mercedes), Fernando Alonso (ESP/McLaren-Renault) 

10th row 

Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL/McLaren-Renault), Marcus Ericsson (SWE/Sauber-Ferrari)

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