Lewis Hamilton took pole for the Japanese Grand Prix with his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in second and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in third. Hamilton’s title rival Sebastian Vettel was in ninth after Ferrari made a mistake in selecting their tyres for the final runs in qualifying when intermittent rain was making the track conditions at Suzuka difficult. Kimi Raikkonen was in fourth with the Haas of Romain Grosjean in fifth.
Hamilton took pole with his first lap in Q3 and a time of 1min 27.760. He has been on top all weekend and Mercedes called his tyres correctly when it mattered in the final moments. With Vettel starting down the grid the German driver’s hopes of closing the gap to Hamilton in the world championship look to be increasingly forlorn.
Rain had begun to fall in the final minutes of the second session but the track had dried by the final shoot out. Ferrari opted to send both drivers out on the intermediate tyres but immediately had to switch them back to the supersoft rubber. It proved a costly error.
Vettel was unable to set a good time on his first run on the slick tyres however as the rain had just begun again and the track had been at its driest when the Ferraris were on the intermediate tyres. He went wide at Spoon and could manage only ninth and with the rain beginning to fall again properly the times could not improve. Vettel went off at the second Degner on his second run and Hamilton’s first lap proved more than enough to secure pole. He was backed for a front-row lockout for Mercedes, their second in a row, by Bottas who also set his quickest lap in Q3 at the first attempt.
Hamilton’s eighth pole of the season is only his second at Suzuka. He converted pole to a win here last year but scored his previous two poles in Japan when the race was held at Fuji. He has four wins at the Japanese Grand Prix, one at Fuji and three at Suzuka, the latter all with Mercedes who have yet to be beaten here during the turbo-hybrid era.
It is his 80th career pole and continues a run of form that has seen him claim a dominant position in the championship. He has won five of the last six races and taken four of the last six poles. Vettel in contrast has not secured the top spot since the German Grand Prix. Hamilton leads Vettel by 50 points in the world championship with five races remaining and if he can convert this into another win and Vettel cannot comeback strongly the title will be within his grasp.
Mercedes have always run well at Suzuka and having proved to be comfortably quicker than Ferrari at the last round in Sochi, they once again had the advantage having been on top over the weekend. Hamilton had topped a one-two for the team in first and second practice and again on Saturday morning, where they had looked ominously strong. Ferrari had been off the pace, Vettel was almost a second back on Friday, although he reduced the gap to just one-tenth in FP3. They proved unable to match Mercedes in pace or strategically when it mattered however.
Hamilton’s pole position will give him the best possible opportunity from which to impose his will on the race. He has been in fine form all weekend, expressing how much he was enjoying driving the unique challenge of the figure of eight track in the Mie prefecture. Yet again the race will likely be run as a one-stopper for the leaders, making track position paramount. With what appears to be a definitive pace advantage Hamilton and Mercedes look in every position to exploit a dominant performance in qualifying.
Both Toro Rosso cars, powered by Honda engines at the engine manufacturer’s home race, made it into Q3 with Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly in sixth and seventh. The Force India’s of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez were in eighth and tenth.
Hamilton was quickest in the first session, three tenths up on Vettel. In Q2, Bottas was slightly quicker, three-hundredths quicker than Hamilton with Vettel in third. Hamilton however set his time on the harder, more durable soft tyres with which he will start the race allowing him to go longer on his opening stint, while the Ferraris were on the supersoft rubber.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo reported a loss of power in Q2 and was unable to set a time, finishing in 15th continuing a horror run of mishaps for the Australian. Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was in 11th in front of the Haas of Kevin Magnussen. Carlos Sainz in the Renault was in 13th with Lance Stroll in the Williams in 14th.
Vettel spun at the hairpin during Q1 but without damage, a session that was stopped after Marcus Ericsson went off into the barriers at Dunlop ending his qualifying in 20th.
Both the McLaren’s of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were eliminated in Q1 in 18th and 19th with the Williams of Sergey Sirotkin in 17th behind the Renault of Nico Hülkenberg.