By Alan Baldwin
GREATER NOIDA, India (Reuters) - Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel put himself on pole position for a fourth successive Formula One crown after lapping the Indian Grand Prix circuit faster than any driver ever before on Saturday.
The German, whose lightning lap of one minute 24.119 seconds maintained his record of being on pole in every Indian race since the first in 2011, will have compatriot Nico Rosberg alongside for Mercedes on the front row for what should be a title-clinching race.
It was the 26-year-old's 43rd career pole and seventh in 16 races so far this season.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, 90 points behind in the standings with four races to go and the only driver who can put Vettel's celebrations on hold, qualified only eighth on a hazy afternoon following early morning smog that delayed final practice.
Lewis Hamilton will line up third for Mercedes, with Vettel's Australian team mate Mark Webber starting in fourth place after he and Vettel had been one-two in every practice session.
However, Webber may have an ace up his sleeve even if Vettel starts in clean air.
The veteran will be the only driver on the front two rows starting on the slower but more durable medium tyres while the other three opted for the soft option and will have to pit earlier.
"Obviously Mark is on a different strategy so we'll see what the race brings tomorrow," said Vettel, who is chasing his sixth successive win as well as an Indian hat-trick at a circuit where he has led every race lap to date.
"In the end I think the strategies shouldn't determine the result that much," added the German, who is set to become the youngest ever quadruple champion as well as the first to win his first four titles consecutively.
Rosberg said he had been pushing the limits to get the most out of a car that has been no match for the Red Bull in recent races.
"We're - I'm - completely on a knife's edge. Really pushing the limits this weekend, just trying to extract that little tenth more out of the car. Trying different things, new ways, new setups and until now it works," he said.
Alonso, who must finish in the top two to have any hope of staying mathematically in contention after the weekend, also qualified on the medium tyres and recognised it was a 50-50 gamble.
"If the soft lasts in good conditions and good pace long enough, the people in front of us have not many problems," the Spaniard told reporters, for once holding back on the criticism of supplier Pirelli.
"If the soft has some problems and they start pitting and go in a heavy traffic, maybe the race win will be between Webber and me," he added. "If the soft tyres are lasting longer than expected and they go much longer, it will be difficult to recover places."
Hamilton, whose team are fighting Ferrari for second place in the constructors' championship that Red Bull could wrap up on Sunday, was focused on that battle.
"They (Red Bull) are in another world but we'll try to stay ahead of the rest," said the 2008 champion.
The big loser was Romain Grosjean, who led the previous race in Japan and has finished on the podium in the last two grands prix but failed to get his Lotus through the first phase of qualifying.
The Frenchman paid a heavy price for going out on the medium tyre when others were lapping on the softs and will start back in 17th.
"We just missed the cut-off time, everyone went quicker than we thought. Today, for some reason, the mediums were not quick enough. It's a decision we took together, we were confident we could do enough with them but we got it wrong," he said.
Team mate Kimi Raikkonen will start sixth, with Ferrari's Felipe Massa in fifth - after qualifying on softs - and Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg a strong seventh for Sauber. The two McLaren drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez rounded out the top 10 behind Alonso.
Perez, whose place at the team for 2014 has yet to be confirmed, sounded more optimistic about a Sunday than he has for some time in a season that has yet to see McLaren finish on the podium.
"I think this can be McLaren's best race of the season," the Mexican told reporters. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by John O'Brien)