Lewis Hamilton will start Sunday’s Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix from pole position for the eighth time this season after another dominant qualifying display in mixed weather conditions at the Suzuka Circuit.
The championship leader led teammate Valtteri Bottas to another Mercedes front-row lockout – the team’s sixth of the 2018 season – with the Englishman netting the 80th pole position of his Formula 1 career.
Crucially for Hamilton, his title arch rival Sebastian Vettel – who trails by 50 points in the standings – could only qualify ninth-fastest after Ferrari panicked with its tyre choice in the final phase of qualifying.
Hamilton has been unstoppable this weekend. Fastest in all three practice sessions, only disaster would deny him pole position on Saturday afternoon. The traditionally fickle Japanese weather tried to play a cameo role as a series of showers rolled across the circuit during Q2 and Q3, but the Mercedes tacticians kept their cool when it mattered most.
A brief shower appeared in the final minutes of Q2 and it was enough to spook Ferrari into sending both of its drivers to the end of pit lane on Intermediate tyres to start Q3. So desperate was the team for track position that by the time the session started the rain had stopped; Mercedes held its drivers back in their garage and released them on dry-weather tyres.
The two Ferrari drivers were immediately back into the pits to switch to the Supersoft tyres, but were still on their out-laps as those originally on the correct tyres posted their quickest times. Vettel ruined his first flying lap by running wide at the Spoon Curve and by the start of his second timed lap the rain began to fall again. He went out on a second set of tyres in the folorn hope of being able to set another time, but was left to tip-toe back to pit lane as the track conditions once again became too slippery.
With Hamilton having won five of the last six Grands Prix and Mercedes being unbeaten at Suzuka in the current turbo-hybrid era, he looks all but certain to extend his lead in the Drivers’ Championship to an impossible margin ahead of Vettel. Ferrari found itself once again beaten on pace and out-thought on strategy when it matters most.
The second row of the grid was claimed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Vettel’s Ferrari teammate Kimi Räikkönen, while Romain Grosjean secured a strong fifth for Haas thanks to a well-timed run in Q3.
The two Toro Rossos, powered by Honda engines at the manufacturer’s home event, both made it into Q3 with Brendon Hartley outqualifying Pierre Gasly; the pair will start from sixth and seventh. In an embarrassing contrast, Honda’s former partner McLaren saw its two cars driven by Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne qualify 18th and 19th respectively.
Force India was the final team in the Q3 session, with Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez claiming eighth and tenth respectively, sandwiching Vettel’s Ferrari.
The second phase of qualifying produced another drama for Renault-bound Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has endured an appalling run of luck since his move from Red Bull Racing was broken during the summer break, and the Chinese and Monaco Grand Prix winner was unable to set a time when his RB14 suffered a sudden loss of power on his out-lap.
He will start behind Charles Leclerc’s Sauber, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, Carlos Sainz’s Renault, and Lance Stroll who put in a surprise performance in his unfancied Williams.
|FORMULA 1 2018 HONDA JAPANESE GRAND PRIX – QUALIFYING RESULTS|
|Q3 Qualifiers||Team / Entry||Time||Gap|
|1.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09||1:27.760|
|2.||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09||1:28.059||+ 0.299|
|3.||Max Verstappen||Aston Martin Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB14||1:29.057||+ 1.297|
|4.||Kimi Räikkönen||Scuderia Ferrari SF71H||1:29.521||+ 1.761|
|5.||Romain Grosjean||Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-18||1:29.761||+ 2.001|
|6.||Brendon Hartley||Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR13||1:30.023||+ 2.263|
|7.||Pierre Gasly||Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR13||1:30.093||+ 2.333|
|8.||Esteban Ocon||Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11||1:30.126||+ 2.366|
|9.||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF71H||1:32.192||+ 4.432|
|10.||Sergio Pérez||Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11||1:37.229||+ 9.469|
|Q2 Qualifiers||Team / Entry||Time||Gap**|
|11.||Charles Leclerc||Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C37||1:29.864||+ 1.877|
|12.||Kevin Magnussen||Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-18||1:30.226||+2.239|
|13.||Carlos Sainz Jr||Renault Sport F1 Team RS18||1:30.490||+ 2.503|
|14.||Lance Stroll||Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW41||1:30.714||+ 2.727|
|15.||Daniel Ricciardo||Aston Martin Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB14||no time|
|Q1 Qualifiers||Team / Entry||Time||Gap*|
|16.||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault Sport F1 Team RS18||1:30.361||+ 1.659|
|17.||Sergey Sirotkin||Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW41||1:30.372||+ 1.670|
|18.||Fernando Alonso||McLaren F1 Team Renault MCL33||1:30.573||+ 1.871|
|19.||Stoffel Vandoorne||McLaren F1 Team Renault MCL33||1:31.041||+ 2.339|
|20.||Marcus Ericsson||Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C37||1:31.213||+ 2.511|
* Denotes gap to the fastest Q1 time of 1:28.702 posted by Lewis Hamilton
** Denotes gap to the fastest Q2 time of 1:27.987 posted by Valtteri Bottas
- Esteban Ocon will drop three grid places for failing to slow sufficiently on his return to the pits during the red flag period in FP3.
Image via Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport