Lewis Hamilton took the second pole position of his career at the Suzuka International Racing Course, his fourth in Japan, while his championship rival Sebastian Vettel felt the effect of a poor strategic choice by Scuderia Ferrari and will start a lowly ninth.
In a qualifying session affected by numerous passing rain showers, Hamilton’s best time was set on his first run in Qualifying 3. A 1 minute 27.760 was three-tenths of a second faster than his Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport team-mate Valtteri Bottas. After a troubled Friday, Max Verstappen showed Aston Martin Red Bull Racing‘s hard work overnight to take third – over a second behind Hamilton.
Just as they did in Free Practice, Mercedes topped every session on their way to pole. Bottas managed to get the edge on Hamilton in Qualifying 2, but could do nothing to stop the championship leader from claiming his eightieth career pole in Formula 1.
With rain halting several late charges in Qualifying 2, Ferrari decided to gamble with the intermediate tyres for Qualifying 3 on both cars. A move that failed to pay off, both Prancing Horses returned to the pits after their exploration lap with tails firmly between their legs.
With drizzle falling and settling on the camera lenses, the other cars on track – all on the super-soft tyres – had just one chance to set a fast lap. Hamilton gave the rest of the field a benchmark that they could not lower, the only driver in the 27 seconds bracket. Moments later, Bottas crossed the line but only just made it within three-tenths after a slight slip at Spoon Curve with Verstappen emerging as the closest non-Mercedes.
Kimi Räikkönen managed to set his competitive time just before the track became too treacherous for slicks, only good enough for fourth over 1.7 seconds off of the ultimate pace. Vettel was on course to match it, but a snap of oversteer at Degner 2 and wheel on a damp patch at Spoon scuppered his chances and left him ninth, a position he had no chance of bettering as the rain intensified.
Romain Grosjean took full advantage of Ferrari’s mistake to qualify in fifth, just ahead of home favourites Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda. After hearing Red Bull’s motorsport advisor Helmut Marko lay down a challenge to him last weekend, Brendon Hartley succeeded in beating Pierre Gasly to sixth – the New Zealander’s best grid position in Formula 1. The Frenchman immediately followed him to the delight of the enthusiastic and distinctly blue and silver-kitted home crowd.
The two Racing Point Force India F1 Team cars sandwiched Vettel in eighth and tenth – Esteban Ocon ahead of Sergio Pérez. However, the Mexican failed to set a representative lap time and ended the session nine seconds away from pole position.
Charles Leclerc narrowly missed out on another appearance in Qualifying 3 for the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team due to a late rain shower in the session’s second sector, marking a disappointing day for the Swiss team. His team-mate Marcus Ericsson was responsible for a red flag in Qualifying 1, running out of road at the Dunlop Curve and making hefty contact with the barriers.
For the third time in four races, Kevin Magnussen failed to make the top ten and was forced to halt his final run in Qualifying 2 due to unsatisfactory track conditions. Carlos Sainz Jr. took thirteenth as his Renault Sport Formula 1 Team colleague Nico Hülkenberg was knocked out in Qualifying 1 – his mechanics performing admirably to get his previously wrecked car fit enough to qualify in a matter of hours.
Lance Stroll surprised the German by making it into fifteenth for Williams Martini Racing right in the dying stages of the session and will start just ahead of the powerless Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian failed to set a time in Qualifying 2 after an engine problem on his out-lap left him cruising back to the pits and cursing on his way to the weighbridge with the world’s cameras following him.
Stroll’s team-mate Sergey Sirotkin, like Hülkenberg, came close to joining the Canadian in Qualifying 2 but had to settle for seventeenth ahead of McLaren F1 Team pair Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne and the stricken Sauber of Ericsson.
[table id=3497 /]