SUZUKA, Japan: Lewis Hamilton struck a huge psychological blow in the Formula One title race Saturday with a sizzling qualifying drive to take pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix.
The Briton, who leads Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by 34 points with five races left, steered his Mercedes to a sizzling track record of one minute, 27.319 seconds—a remarkable 10th pole in 16 races this season.
Valtteri Bottas clocked the second-best time, but Vettel will join Hamilton on the front row after the Finn incurred a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change to his Mercedes on Friday.
“The car is crazy here,” said Hamilton after his 71st career pole, and first at Suzuka.
“This track has always been one of the greatest and with this car it’s just mind-blowing,” added the triple world champion, looking to hit back in Japan after being stunned by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in Malaysia last weekend.
“It’s just insane speeds that this car is throwing us around inside and the way you can throw the car around is like the craziest roller-coaster ride.
“It’s incredible, it’s been 10 years trying to get that pole position—10th time lucky!”
A three-time winner of the Japanese Grand Prix, Hamilton fired a clear warning to Vettel, who realistically needs to win this weekend to revive his fading title hopes.
“The car is a lot different this weekend and a lot more enjoyable to drive,” said Hamilton.
“It’s definitely great when it comes together like this. Naturally the Ferraris will be rapid tomorrow but the plan is to keep them behind.”
Vettel, who finished fourth in Malaysia after starting from last, set the tempo in Friday’s rain-hit practice but was well off the pace in qualifying.
“I tried everything on that last lap as I knew I had to take a bit more risks,” said the German.
“I knew that we’d be on front row because of Valtteri’s penalty so I’m pretty happy.”
Daniel Ricciardo was fourth fastest, followed by Verstappen—putting the two Red Bulls on the second row.
The Force India pair of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez start on row three with Bottas and the Williams of Felipe Massa behind them on row four.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth quickest, has also been demoted five places after switching his gearbox following a shunt in Saturday’s practice.
There were more hair-raising moments in qualifying as Bottas, who crashed in the morning’s free practice, almost lost control again early on.
“It’s been a tricky weekend,” said Bottas, who confessed to having a crisis of confidence after finishing fifth in Malaysia. “The incident in practice made a massive difference.”
Romain Grosjean provided the biggest scare in qualifying when he smashed into a wall, mangling his Haas machine.
“I don’t know what happened,” barked Grosjean over team radio. “The car just went on a massive snap.”
Former world champion Fernando Alonso out-qualified McLaren team mate Stoffel Vandoorne but it mattered little as the Spaniard will start the race from last after changing his engine overnight.
As a result, Vandoorne will be promoted from 11th to 10th on the starting grid.