Lewis Hamilton set a new lap record on his way to taking pole for the Japanese Grand Prix.
Hamilton’s lap of 1:27.319 was almost 1.5 seconds faster than the previous record, held by Michael Schumacher, and allowed the Briton to secure his first pole at Suzuka after 10 attempts.
Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas qualified in second but has been slapped with a 5-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox.
It elevates Sebastian Vettel to the front row, despite being 0.472 seconds off the pace, and gives the Ferrari driver a chance of resurrecting his fading title prospects.
Starting from third will be Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo who out-qualified Max Verstappen for the first time in seven races to take fifth ahead of the Force India’s of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, Felipe Massa’s Williams and Fernando Alonso’s McLaren.
Hamilton’s Return to Form
Mercedes were far from top form at Singapore and Malaysia but Hamilton managed to grind out important wins – aided in part by driver error and mechanical problems at Ferrari.
Sitting 34 points ahead of Vettel in the championship, Hamilton seems to have found his groove again and was a step above throughout qualifying.
Such was his dominance that he was fastest in Q1 despite being on the slower soft tyre. Only Vettel was able to save a set of supersofts but in a clear indication of their relative speeds, Hamilton was quicker than the Ferrari by three-tenths.
In the crucial Q3, Hamilton laid down two near-perfect laps to be untouchable.
Bottas was 0.641 seconds behind on his first run and could only improve marginally on his second hot lap, while Vettel failed to improve his time after running wide at the Esses.
“I tried everything on that last lap as I knew I had to take a bit more risks, it didn’t work,” said Vettel.
“Maybe I was expecting a bit more from us. I think we got closer throughout qualifying but overall we were just a bit too far behind.”
The result for Hamilton now means that the Englishman has claimed pole at every circuit currently on the Formula 1 calendar.
“I was very much on it,” said Hamilton. “I didn’t make one mistake and each lap got better and better. You build a foundation and build upon it lap after lap. It’s just incredible to come here with this car. This track is one of the greatest circuits and with this car it’s mind-blowing.”
Grid Penalties Hit Teams
Suzuka is regarded as one of the most challenging Formula 1 circuits and it claimed a host of casualties over practice and qualifying.
Bottas ran wide onto the grass and smacked into the wall, while Raikkonen had a heavy crash after losing control at Degner 2 and sliding through the gravel into the tyre wall. Both needed to replace their gear boxes and will take a five-place grid penalty.
Haas driver Romain Grosjean also feel prey to Suzuka hitting the barriers at the high speed Turn 3 at the start of qualifying.
“The car just went on a massive snap,” he said. “It’s a shame because I thought we could have made the top ten.”
Despite qualifying in 16th, the Frenchman is remarkably set to move forward on the grid after other drivers take their penalties.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso will start from the back of the field with a cumulative 35-place drop, while Renault’s Jolyon Palmer and Torro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz both have 20-place grid penalties for engine usage.