Lewis Hamilton will start the Japanese Grand Prix on pole position, the 80th of his career. Closest rival, Sebastian Vettel won’t be quite so close tomorrow as tyre trouble led to him qualifying in ninth.
Just as was the case in both sessions held on Friday, Lewis Hamilton was fastest in final practice. This time though it wasn’t a Mercedes 1-2 as Sebastian Vettel was second-fastest in a rain-affected session.
Hamilton was 0.116 seconds ahead of Vettel, a much narrower gap than recorded on Friday. Ferrari also filled third spot with Raikkonen 0.455 seconds off the pace. Valtteri Bottas was back in fourth with the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo in fifth and sixth. The two Force India’s followed with Ocon ahead of Perez with the Renault of Carlos Sainz and Kevin Magnusson in his Haas completing the top ten.
The session finished a couple of minutes early due to Nico Hulkenburg taking his Renault into a wall, thankfully without injury being sustained.
Lewis Hamilton will start the Japanese Grand Prix on pole and it’s another front-row lock-out for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas finishing 0.299 seconds behind his team-mate. It was a poor session for Ferrari though and Sebastian Vettel will start in ninth place on Sunday.
It was a qualifying session to forget for Ferrari. Q2 had finished early due to a rain shower but by the time the top-ten shoot-out began, the track was dry, so Ferrari sent their cars out on intermediate tyres. It didn’t take long for them to realize they’d made a big mistake but by the time it came to the second runs the rain had arrived and no cars could improve on their first runs. That left Raikkonen in fourth but Vettel down in ninth four and a half seconds behind Hamilton as he ran wide at the Spoon curve.
Max Verstappen will start in third, his Red Bull was 1.3 seconds off the pace. Kimi Raikkonen was fourth nearly two seconds behind Hamilton. The Haas of Romain Grosjean was fifth fastest followed by the Toro Rosso’s of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly who have upgraded Honda engines this weekend. The two Force India’s were separated by Vettel with Ocon eighth and Perez tenth. Ocon will start in 11th after being penalised three places for not slowing sufficiently for red flags. That means Charles Leclerc who was 11th fastest will be 10th on the grid.
It was another disappointing session for McLaren (possibly wishing they had an upgraded Honda engine) and they finished 18th and 19th with Alonso ahead of Vandoorne. Only Marcus Ericsson will be behind them on the grid after he crashed his Sauber in Q1.
Speaking after qualifying, Hamilton said that “the call at the start of Q3 was probably the most difficult call.” It led to his 80th pole which the world champ said, “I can’t believe.”
Vettel believed the conditions were “OK” when the final session began and defended their decision re tyres and blamed his errors for his poor performance.
Everything seems to be against Vettel for this race. He’ll be starting on super-soft tyres compared to Hamilton on soft and it looks like damage limitation for the German driver which is not the situation you want to be in when 50 points behind the championship leader. Not that everyone believes there’s still a title battle this season as Max Verstappen commented: “Is it still a battle?”
Hopefully we’ll get some kind of battle tomorrow but it’s looking good for Hamilton. Mind you, if Bottas was ahead of him and Vettel still trailing, would Mercedes ask him to let the clear championship leader go ahead? I’ll be back next week with another blog, till then enjoy your racing.