Nico Rosberg has snatched pole position from teammate Lewis Hamilton in a tense qualifying session at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Rosberg has had his nose ahead of Hamilton all weekend, but Hamilton topped the top 10 shootout after the first laps were set, heaping pressure onto his teammate for the ultimate lap of the session.
Rosberg set his final lap first with three purple sectors, but the trailing Mercedes beat the German’s first sector time, meaning little separated the pair when Hamilton rounded the final turn.
The Briton came close to stealing pole, but his lap fell short by an agonising 0.013 seconds, winning Rosberg his third consecutive pole position at Suzuka.
“Of course I‘m happy with the result in the end,” he said. “I’m feeling good, feeling comfortable, which is what allows me to put in a lap like that in the end. I’m pleased with that.
“I had a good balance on the car. It’s just putting everything together.”
Hamilton didn’t present too unhappily, perhaps in the knowledge that he won the previous two races in Japan from second place against a pole-sitting Rosberg.
“I did as well as I could,” he said. “I’m generally very happy with that, and history has shows that you don’t have to be on pole to get the win.
“It’s been a weekend of a lot of work getting the car set up right. Considering that, to be that close, I’m really happy with that.”
Rosberg will start the grand prix knowing that a win will earn him enough points to allow him to finish second for the rest of the season and still claim the title.
Mercedes is almost certain to win the constructors championship tomorrow regardless of the result; the team needs only to ensure Red Bull Racing doesn’t outscore it by more than 22 points.
Kimi Räikkönen was the fastest non-Mercedes driver after the Finn set a time just 0.3 seconds behind the Mercedes cars on the front row.
Räikkönen has looked switched on all weekend despite complaining during practice of poor balance, and he was pleasantly surprised to end up leading the second row of the grid.
“it’s pretty much the same car that we raced a week ago,” he said. “I was very positively surprised how well the car’s been behaving and how quick it’s been.
“Obviously it’s been a bit tricky to get the right balance, but it’s been pretty good. It’s not exactly what we’re looking for, but it was pretty close. It’s not too bad.”
Sebastian Vettel was 0.079 second slower than Räikkönen, but the German will serve a three-place grid penalty for his first-turn crash at last weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, dropping him to seventh on the grid.
Max Verstappen will be promoted to fourth after setting the fifth-quickest time good enough for a 0.062-second buffer to Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo.
Sergio Perez will also take a one-grid-place boost, from seventh to sixth, in his Force India.
The Mexican set the same 1 minute 31.961 second lap time as Romain Grosjean, but Vettel’s penalty slots the German between the two.
Grosjean will remain in eighth, split from his teammate Esteban Gutierrez in P10 by Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India, making the Japanese Grand Prix the first race for which Haas has qualified both cars in the top 10.
Nico Rosberg dominated Q2, setting a time 0.4 seconds faster than teammate Lewis Hamilton and a further tenth quicker than anyone else.
Both Mercedes cars, the nearby Ferrari cars and the slightly more distant RBR cars set just one quick lap for the session before leaving the midfield to fight for the final four Q3 places.
Williams neglected to set a first time, but neither Valtteri Bottas nor Felipe Massa managed a sufficiently competitive time at the end of the session to make the top ten; both were eliminated in P11 and P12.
Daniil Kvyat outqualified Toro Rosso teammate Carlos Sainz in thirteenth and fourteenth after the Spaniard spun his car at Spoon Curve.
Fernando Alonso qualified fifteenth in his McLaren-Honda, just ahead of Jolyon Palmer, who said he could have qualified higher for Renault had Sainz’s spin not triggered yellow flags on his fast lap.
Overnight rain dampened the track, leaving it in a condition to improve rapidly when all 22 cars embarked on qualifying laps.
The state of the circuit didn’t faze Mercedes, however, and both cars set laps on the medium tyre — the middle compound this weekend — and confidently returned to the pits for the remainder of the session.
Red Bull Racing also attempted the same tyre-saving strategy, but the team became concerned between the first and second runs that the track was developing too much grip too quickly.
As was the case for Max Verstappen in Malaysia, the RBR drivers returned to the track with soft compound tyres to complete a slow out-lap, keeping them prepared to launch into a qualifying lap should they tumble down the order.
The panic was unfounded, however, and no-one was able to improve sufficient to displace Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo from the top 16.
Carlos Sainz, Jenson Button, Pascal Wehrlein, Esteban Ocon, Jolyon Palmer, and Marcus Ericsson were all in the drop zone in the final minutes and were forced to battle for progression.
Sainz and Button improved, but the latter enough only to promote himself back onto the elimination bubble, and a classy performance by Jolyon Palmer catapulted his Renault into the top 16 and forced Button into the bottom six.
The Briton was eliminated in Q1 for his final Japanese Grand Prix qualifying appearance ahead of Kevin Magnussen, Sauber duo Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr, and Manor pair Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein.