A close qualifying session in Japan saw Nico Rosberg claim pole position ahead of team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton struggled with car setup during practice, and despite setting the best time during the early fast laps in Q3, Rosberg found the edge and took pole by just 0.013 seconds.
The Ferrari’s locked out the second row with Raikkonen third and Vettel fourth, but the German will take a three place grid penalty following his opening lap collision with Rosberg in Malaysia. Ferrari were pushed all the way by Red Bull with Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo qualifying in fifth and sixth.
A Matter of Inches
Formula 1 is often a matter of small margins and that was certainly demonstrated during qualifying in Japan.
The top six drivers all qualified within 0.593 seconds of Rosberg. But more remarkable was the narrow difference between the two championship contenders. Rosberg’s lead of 0.013 seconds equates to just 33 inches over the 3.6 mile Suzuka lap.
And it may well be these few inches that decide the fate of the season with Lewis Hamilton desperately needing a victory – or at least to finish in front of his team-mate. The Englishman was never settled during practice and despite pushing hard in qualifying he couldn’t find the necessary pace.
“It’s been a weekend of a lot of work that’s gone on, getting the car set-up right and some big changes went into qualifying,“ said Hamilton.
The outcome of the race may well be decided by the start. Always tricky on the downhill grid, history is at least on Hamilton’s side having beaten Rosberg in 2014 and 2015 after also starting from second.
Close Race Expected
Mercedes were the clear front runners during qualifying but they were far from dominant. While it may be an indication that the team are conserving their engines following a spate of mechanical problems, it does point to a close Japanese Grand Prix in the making. Ferrari were within just 0.289 seconds of the Silver Arrows and will be resurgent heading into the race.
“It’s pretty much the same car as we had last week,” said Raikkonen. “I was very positively surprised by how well the car has been behaving and how quick it has been.”
The Red Bull’s would have been expecting to perform better in qualifying but Ricciardio hinted at a drop off in power that may also impact his race. “Personally I was down on the straights,” explained Ricciardo. “I was losing straight line speed. It is not the first time, but there were signs of it last week. It had a bigger effect this week.” “It was just a bit frustrating. I felt I did all I could with the car in qualifying, but it looked like we lost a good little chunk, as least down the straights.”
Best Result For Haas
The surprise packets of qualifying were undoubtedly Haas who managed to get both drivers into Q3 for the first time in their maiden season. Grosjean put a series of terrifying brake failures behind him to qualify eighth and his team-mate Gutierrez will start from tenth.
“To get both Romain and Esteban into Q3 was one of the targets for this year and we’ve now achieved it,” said Team Principal Guenther Steiner. “If you’re in your first year and you get two cars in there by merit, it’s fantastic. Hats off to the team and to the drivers.”
Far more disappointing was McLaren who failed to get Button out of Q1 at the home venue of their engine supplier Honda. In front of passionate fans, Button’s woes during practice spilled into qualifying making the Japanese Grand Prix ‘trickier than expected’.
But with rain expected overnight, a damp track could well serve up an exciting race and the potential for an upset.
The race starts at 14:00 local time and runs over 53 laps.