By Steve Keating
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Red Bull's quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel seized pole position on Saturday for a U.S. Grand Prix that could see him celebrate a record eighth successive win of the Formula One season.
The 26-year-old German made sure of his 44th career pole with the last lap of the session, with Australian team mate Mark Webber having to settle for second on an all-Red Bull front row at the Circuit of the Americas.
Sunday's race will be the eighth time this season that Vettel, who clinched his fourth successive driver's title in India last month, has started from pole and the second straight year in Texas.
If he wins, the champion will become the first driver to win eight races in a single season. The all-time record of nine in a row was set by Italian Alberto Ascari over the course of two seasons in 1952/53.
He will also stay on course to equal Michael Schumacher's record of 13 wins in a season, with only Brazil to come after Austin and 11 victories already under his belt.
"I'm trying not to think much about these things," Vettel told reporters.
"I think it is not the right mindset to go into a race thinking about a higher target than just the race. I've done well with that kind of approach so far so I don't see any reason to change."
Vettel's best lap of one minute 36.338 seconds was set under overcast skies in the dying seconds, with Webber threatening to take his third pole in four races.
"Would have been good to get another one off Seb at the end with a few grey hairs - but didn't happen, he did the lap," said Webber, who will retire from F1 at the end of the season. "Anyway, I'm having no second thoughts (about retiring).
"Good timing for me. Hand over to quicker guys."
The Red Bull one-two was a nice present from the two drivers to team principal Christian Horner, who celebrated his 40th birthday on Saturday and will hope to celebrate even more with a victory on Sunday.
"Happy birthday to Christian," a smiling Vettel told reporters. "Obviously a good result to have both cars in the front row for tomorrow.
"It was very close with Mark, he seemed to get closer and closer the longer the weekend went on. Fortunately I could just manage to stay ahead.
"I really like this place, I like the circuit and looking forward to tomorrow."
Frenchman Romain Grosjean, still chasing his first win, put Lotus third on the grid - but seven tenths slower than Webber - with Germany's Nico Hulkenberg a fine fourth for Sauber.
Mercedes Lewis Hamilton, a winner in Texas last year for McLaren, will start fifth alongside Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who hurt his back in Abu Dhabi and was only given the all-clear to race after a medical on Thursday.
Hamilton's German team mate Nico Rosberg could manage only 14th place but will move up two after penalties are applied to others above him.
Heikki Kovalainen, the Finn who is replacing compatriot Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus for the last two races after the departing 2007 champion pulled out to have back surgery, continued to impress.
Making his first appearance in the final phase of qualifying since he was at McLaren in 2009, he qualified eighth.
McLaren's season of suffering continued, with 2009 world champion Jenson Button missing the final cut.
Although the Briton qualified 13th, he will start even further back on the grid after being handed a three place penalty for passing under a red flag during Friday's opening practice session.
Mexico's Sergio Perez, who was told by McLaren only this week that he would not be driving for the team next season, gave the team a reminder of his talent with seventh place that equaled his season's best.
There were more penalties handed out after qualifying with Sauber's Esteban Gutierrez hit with a 10 place grid drop after impeding Williams driver Pastor Maldonado, who failed to get through the first phase.
Marussia's Max Chilton was handed a drive-through penalty for impeding in the same session and must serve it during the first five laps of Sunday's race.
Finnish rookie Valtteri Bottas brought smiles to struggling former champions Williams with ninth place on the grid.
(Editing by Alan Baldwin)