Whilst Lewis Hamilton bagged his 80th Formula One pole position, Sebastian Vettel’s ever-fading hopes of being able to fight for the drivers’ championship continue to dwindle away after a tactical error in qualifying left the Ferrari driver down in ninth place on the grid.
With Ferrari struggling to overcome Mercedes in straight fight, their attempt at gambling in the tricky wet-dry conditions at Suzuka backfired. Their call for intermediates tyres at the start of Q3 was ill-timed, and it left their drivers rushing to complete a lap on a gradually-worsening track, with the rain eventually falling at the end Q3.
By the time Ferrari had set their first lap times, which were only good enough to put Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel in fourth and ninth, Mercedes had already stormed to a one-two, with Hamilton leading Valtteri Bottas by three tenths of a second.
“The team have done an amazing job this weekend, and the call by the team in Q3 was probably the most difficult call,” said Hamilton after qualifying.
“You saw all of us bumbling and trying to figure out what to do. The team were just spot on with it and gave us the opportunity to grab this pole position.
“Whilst it was a bit of an anti-climax, because we didn’t get to do the last lap, it was still…it’s my 80th, I can’t believe that I have 80, and I couldn’t have done this without the team.”
Max Verstappen also benefited from Ferrari’s below-par qualifying to take a place in the top three, a position he will be hoping to hold on to during the race after Red Bull’s comparable pace to Ferrari in practice. It was a bittersweet qualifying for Red Bull, however, as Daniel Ricciardo suffered power unit electronics issues in Q2, meaning he’ll start from 15th on the grid.
Raikkonen took fourth ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean, whilst Toro Rosso had a superb qualifying session with the updated Honda power unit, with Brendon Hartley taking his best qualifying result of the season in sixth and Pierre Gasly in seventh.
Qualifying Session One
Despite the top teams easily progressing and not needing to push to their cars to the maximum in order to get through to Q2, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel did a 180-degree spin of his car at the turn eleven hairpin, indicating how much he’s pushing in order to compete with Hamilton, who topped Q1.
The session was interrupted with ten minutes to go due to a crash for Marcus Ericsson. The Sauber driver ran wide on the exit of turn six and spun off into the tyre barrier, damaging his Sauber and putting him out of qualifying.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg had a similar crash in FP3, and his team faced a rush to get his car ready for qualifying. The Renault team succeeded, but he failed to progress into the second part of qualifying, getting edged out by an impressive lap from Williams’ Lance Stroll.
Joining Hulkenberg in the drop zone were; Sergey Sirtokin, Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne and Marcus Ericsson.
Qualifying Session Two
With Mercedes enjoying a pace advantage in Suzuka, they took up the option to try and progress into Q3 on the soft-compound tyres – the ‘middle’ choice tyre for this weekend. Ferrari chose the supersofts.
Regardless of Ferrari having the faster tyre, the Mercedes took the top two slots on the timing screen, albeit with Bottas finishing ahead of Hamilton for the first time this weekend.
With Ricciardo unable to get a lap in due to a power unit electronics failure, the Australian was eliminated, providing one of the shocks of qualifying.
Interestingly, both Haas drivers tried to take on Q2 with a set of soft tyres, and their plan looked to initially be partially-working with Romain Grosjean sitting in eighth place and Kevin Magnussen in twelfth after the opening laps.
With the ever-present odd spots of rain gradually intensifying over the course of Q2, drivers were unable to set any faster times in the closing stages of the session.
Getting their laps in just in time, Toro Rosso managed to get both cars into Q3, with Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley in ninth and tenth.
The drivers who weren’t given another shot at qualifying due to the weather were Charles Leclerc, Kevin Magnussen, Carlos Sainz, Lance Stroll and Daniel Ricciardo, who was seen screaming in frustration inside his helmet as he walked down the pit lane towards parc fermé.
Qualifying Session Three
Ferrari were the only team to venture out on the intermediate tyres, but they quickly determined that the track conditions were too dry and bailed out for supersoft tyres.
With the Mercedes drivers initially alone in battling it out for pole, it was Hamilton who set the fastest time by going purple in the second and third sectors. Bottas was fastest in the first sector, but ultimately fell three tenths short.
With both Ferrari drivers taking too much of the damp patches at the spoon corner, neither Raikkonen or Vettel set good initial lap times. Raikkonen was fourth behind Verstappen and Vettel was down in ninth.
However, with the drops of rain deciding to intensify once again, no runners were given the chance to improve their time, leaving the Mercedes pair to lock out the front row of the grid unchallenged.
Verstappen remained third ahead of Raikkonen, with Grosjean taking fifth place for Haas and Toro Rosso claiming one of their best qualifying results of the year with Brendon Hartley sixth and Pierre Gasly seventh.
The Force India’s of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez had perhaps hoped for more, but line up in eighth and tenth, separated by Vettel.
“It wasn’t our day for timings, and the snap [mistake] into spoon [corner] didn’t help. Yeah, not our qualifying,” said Vettel.
“I think we made a step from yesterday, but unfortunately we were not able to confirm that.”
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m27.760s
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1m28.059s 0.299s
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault 1m29.057s 1.297s
4 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m29.521s 1.761s
5 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 1m29.761s 2.001s
6 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso/Honda 1m30.023s 2.263s
7 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso/Honda 1m30.093s 2.333s
8 Esteban Ocon Force India/Mercedes 1m30.126s 2.366s
9 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m32.192s 4.432s
10 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 1m37.229s 9.469s
11 Charles Leclerc Sauber/Ferrari 1m29.864s
12 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari 1m30.226s
13 Carlos Sainz Renault 1m30.490s
14 Lance Stroll Williams/Mercedes 1m30.714s
15 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault No time
16 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1m30.361s
17 Sergey Sirotkin Williams/Mercedes 1m30.372s
18 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Renault 1m30.573s
19 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren/Renault 1m31.041s
20 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 1m31.213s
By: Luke Murphy
All images: Motorsport Images
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