Lewis Hamilton took his 71st career pole position and his first at Japan’s Suzuka Circuit as he beat Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas by three tenths of a second with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel third. However, title contender Vettel will start alongside championship leader Hamilton on the front row as Bottas is set for a grid penalty due to an unscheduled gearbox change.
Hamilton set the pace in Q1, rising to the top of the timesheet around 10 minutes into the session with a lap of 1:29.047 on soft tyres. He was followed by Kimi Räikkönen, the Finn recovering from an FP3 crash to post a time of 1:29.163. Raikkonen’s earlier crash had, however, necessitated a change of gearbox so he will face a five-place drop down the grid for tomorrow’s race. Max Verstappen took third place in Q1 ahead of Bottas, Vettel and sixth-placed Daniel Ricciardo in the other Red Bull.
The opening session was brought to an early end after just under 17 minutes when Haas’ Romain Grosjean crashed heavily at the end of the Esses section of the track. The red flags were immediately shown.
With just 1m18s left on the clock there was not enough time available for any drivers to complete a warm-up lap and cross the start/finish line before the chequered flag fell, so the decision was taken to not restart the session. Thus, eliminated at the end of Q1 were 16th-placed Grosjean, Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, Williams’ Lance Stroll and the Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein.
Stroll was somewhat unfortunate as he claimed to have been blocked by Force India’s Sergio Perez earlier in the session, a complaint that resulted in stewards investigating the incident. However, after viewing footage from multiple angles, the stewards ruled that no further action was necessary.
Hamilton seized an early advantage in Q2, claiming P1 with a time of 1:27.819. He was followed by Vettel, though the German was over six tenths adrift of his title rival. Bottas took third place on his opening run with a lap of 1:28.543 set on soft tyres, with Verstappen fourth ahead of Ricciardo. Sixth place went to Raikkonen, who opted to complete his first run on soft tyres and he will start on that set.
The Red Bull drivers elected to stay in their garage for the final runs and though Hamilton took to the track, he eventually abandoned his run despite being quickest through the first two sectors. Vettel improved to a time of 1:28.225, while Bottas took third on soft tyres, which means that like Räikkönen, he will start on the soft compound.
In the drop zone ahead of the final runs was 11th-placed Fernando Alonso who had been edged out of the top 10 by just five hundredths of a second by McLaren team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne. Also in danger ahead of the final runs were P12 man Nico Hulkenberg of Renault, followed by team-mate Jolyon Palmer, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz.
Alonso was the only driver to escape the danger zone, with the Spaniard displacing Vandoorne to take 10th place, but it was something of a Pyrrhic victory as Alonso is set to take a 35-place grid penalty for changed engine elements. Vandoorne will therefore get a choice of starting tyre but will move up into the top 10.
At the end of the first runs of Q3, Hamilton sat in provisional pole position with a time of 1:27.345. That put him a comfortable 0.452s ahead of second-placed Vettel, with Bottas third ahead of the Red Bulls of Ricciardo and Verstappen.
And the Briton proved to be untouchable in the final runs. He made a marginal improvement to 1:27.319 but it wasn’t necessary. Vettel could only find six thousandths of a second over his opening time and that allowed Bottas to claim P2 with a lap of 1:27.651.
Bottas, though, will drop five places and Vettel will therefore start on the front row ahead of Ricciardo and Verstappen who qualified fourth and fifth respectively.
Raikkonen was sixth in qualifying ahead of Force India’s Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez. Felipe Massa was ninth for Williams while Fernando Alonso was tenth.
eom/FIA press conference