Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton dominated Formula 1 qualifying on Saturday to take his first pole position in Suzuka. Championship rival Sebastian Vettelof Ferrari will start Sunday's race second after Valtteri Bottas received a grid penalty for changing his gearbox.
The race wil broadcast at 2 a.m. Sunday on NBCSN.
Hamilton won the pole by just under half a second from teammate Bottas. However, after Bottas and Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen both required gearbox changes following crashes in Saturday morning practice, the front row is completed by Hamilton’s championship rival Vettel, setting up an opportunity for Vettel to cut into his 34-point deficit in the championship chase.
“It’s been a really good day and every lap was fantastic,” Hamilton said. “You were rapid here, Nico (Rosberg) was rapid here -- I never really got a great balance in the past so I never did great qualifying so to finally get that balance behind me with the great work from my engineers and the great timing from all of the mechanics, I finally got on track and did the time. The car is crazy and I wish you could feel it!”
Of the 20 venues that make up the current Formula 1 calendar, Suzuka was the only one where Hamilton was yet to score a pole position. It's a circuit where race day has been more kind, however, as has two victories in the past three races.
The storyline is pretty simple, really. Ferrari needs to bounce back from a pair of difficult Grand Prix weekends with a strong performance in Japan -- or the Formula 1 title race could well be ...
“It’s my first time,” said Hamilton. “I’m running out of opportunities to get this pole so I was like, ’I’ve got to make sure I make it stick today.’ Valtteri (Bottas) did a great job. Obviously, he’s going to have the penalty at the start but still, he’s got a great opportunity in the race to get up there with us.
“It’s going to be a different view. I’ve never really had this view here. We’ve worked hard for the car to hopefully work well in the race. It’s always harder here once you get to the race. Those Esses really kill the tires so I’m hoping we’re in a good position for that and, naturally, the Ferraris will be rapid as they always are but the plan is to keep them behind.”
Vettel knows that he must begin to make inroads on the Britons lead sooner rather than later with only five Grand Prix remaining, including Sunday’s race in Japan.
“Qualifying has been quite good to be honest,” said Vettel. “I’m reasonably happy. I tried everything on the last run and knew I had to take a bit more risk but it didn’t work. I ran out of track at the exit of the Esses but I knew that if Valtteri got past then we would still be on the front row.
“I would have loved to have been a bit quicker but yeah. It’s quite amazing with the new cars around here and I love the track.”
After applying the penalties of Bottas and Raikkonen, Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen moved to fourth and fifth to makeup the second row of the grid. While Verstappen took victory last weekend in Malaysia, it will be an uphill battle on Sunday with both driver’s fastest laps were more than a second from the pole time.
In total, five drivers were handed grid penalties. Bottas, qualified second but takes a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. Raikkonen qualified sixth but also will move back after a similar grid penalty. Other grid penalties for various engine changes include Jolyon Palmer (20 places), Carlos Sainz (20 places) and Fernando Alonso (35 places).
By Sam Hall
Formula 1, Racing
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