SUZUKA: 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 track record of one minute, 27.319 seconds with Valtteri Bottas second fastest.
Vettel will join Hamilton on the front row after Bottas incurred a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change to his Mercedes on Friday.
“The car is crazy here,” said the triple world champion 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 Hamilton, looking to hit back after being stunned by Red Bull´s Max Verstappen in Malaysia last weekend.
“With the downforce we now have it´s three seconds faster than before and it´s just insane speeds that this car is throwing us around inside.
“It´s incredible, my first pole position here — 10th time lucky or whatever it is.”
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 German, 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 Vettel.
“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.
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 early on.
Romain Grosjean was less fortunate and smashed into a wall moments later, mangling his Haas machine.
“Massive oversteer — I don´t know what happened,” snapped Grosjean over team radio.
Former world champion Fernando Alonso outqualified 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.