Lewis Hamilton has dominated qualifying for the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix, setting a new all-time lap record and banishing championship rival Sebastian Vettel by one place and almost half a second.
After two inconclusive Friday practice sessions Hamilton started to string together impressive times on Saturday morning, and by the beginning of qualifying there was little doubt the Briton was headed to a title-critical pole position for a race on a difficult-to-pass circuit.
The margin was impressive: Hamilton pulled out a gap of 0.472 on Vettel, leaving little to the imagination for Sunday’s race.
Better yet, with the cars going faster than ever around the fabled Suzuka Circuit, Hamilton’s pole time shattered the previous circuit record by 1.635 seconds.
“Incredible,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a really good day and every lap was fantastic.”
Hamilton paid credit to the team for turning around his capricious W08 car after it almost inexplicably fell off the pace in the last two races.
“We worked hard for the car to hopefully work well in the race. I’m hoping we’re in a good position for that.
“Naturally the Ferraris will be rapid, as they always are, but I’ll just keep them behind.”
Valtteri Bottas was 0.332 seconds off the pace, representing an improvement on previous qualifying performances, which have put him more than half a second behind his teammate.
Bottas, however, carries a five-place gearbox change penalty, dropping him to sixth on the grid after Kimi Räikkönen, who qualified sixth, takes his own five-place penalty.
“It’s been a really difficult weekend,” Bottas said, referring to a crash he had on Saturday morning. “The guys did a great job getting everything back together.”
Vettel qualified third for Ferrari, and though the German said he was happy with his performance, he was clearly disappointed to find his car was no longer an equal match for Mercedes over a single lap.
“I would’ve loved to have been a bit quicker,” he said. “I tried everything on the lap run. It didn’t work.”
Bottas’s penalty will bump Vettel up one place to the front row of the grid, boosting his chances of jumping Hamilton, who he must outscore to keep his title hopes realistically alive, at the first turn.
Daniel Ricciardo qualified fourth, half a second behind Vettel and just 0.026 seconds ahead of teammate Max Verstappen in fifth.
Kimi Räikkönen qualified sixth and more than 0.7 seconds behind teammate Vettel, compounding the five-place grid penalty that will drop him to 10th on the grid due to the order in which other penalties are applied.
Esteban Ocon beat teammate Sergio Perez by two tenths of a second for seventh and eighth, and the pair was 0.2 seconds ahead of Williams’s Felipe Massa.
Fernando Alonso was a distant 3.3 seconds off the pace in his McLaren-Honda, but the Spaniard will start from the back of the grid after taking a 35-place grid penalty for a full power unit change made on Friday night.
The second segment of qualifying allowed Mercedes to really stretch its legs. Hamilton wasted little time, using his first flying lap to break the all-time lap record — previously a 1:28.954 — by 1.1 seconds.
The closest Ferrari could get was Vettel’s second flyer, which was a concerning 0.4 seconds slower.
Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen set their best times on the soft tyre and qualified for the top 10, meaning both will start the race on the harder tyre.
Bottas and Räikkönen carry five-place grid penalties for gearbox changes, and starting on the soft tyre will give both drivers a strategic alternative the rest of the top 10.
Fernando Alonso knocked teammate Stoffel Vandoorne out of the top 10 by just 0.059 seconds, though the Belgian was pleased to learn that he will start in the top 10 anyway because of the Spaniard’s 35-place penalty.
Nico Hülkenberg was the 12th quickest driver of the session, outpacing Haas’s Kevin Magnussen and teammate Jolyon Palmer behind him. Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso was the slowest car, qualifying 15th.
Palmer and Sainz both carry 20-place grid penalties for various power unit changes, dropping them to P18 and P19 respectively.
Qualifying began with a flurry of laps with all drivers keen to maximise running as the circuit, washed clean by heavy rain overnight, continued to improve throughout the afternoon.
Bottas almost had an enormous shunt just six minutes into the session, sliding out of the second Degner corner and bringing the car back under control perilously close to the barrier at the base of the bridge.
Perez blocked Lance Stroll in the final chicane when the Canadian was on a hot lap, drawing the ire of the stewards, who committed to investigate the incident after the race.
With the threat of drama in the air as the cars undertook their final qualifying laps, Romain Grosjean made good on the tension and binned his Haas car in the esses.
The Frenchman suffered “massive oversteer”, flicking the rear of the car out of his control and tearing off his front two wheels on impact.
A red flag was called, but with less than 90 seconds remaining on the clock, the session wasn’t restarted.
Grosjean qualified P16 ahead of Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly in P17, though the damage to his car may necessitate repairs that incur a grid penalty.
Stroll was extremely disappointed to qualify just P19 and complained that he was blocked on both of his fast laps.
Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein were the slowest of the session and qualified on the last row of the grid, though penalties will shuffle the duo up three places along with the other three drivers eliminated in Q1.