Hamilton Gets 71st F-1 Pole At Suzuka

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Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. (Mercedes photo)

SUZUKA, Japan — Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes staged a dramatic return to form at Suzuka Circuit, as the world championship point leader earned his 71st pole position – and his first at the charismatic Japanese track – after a stunning display that left rivals reeling.

Teammate Valtteri Bottas was second, but a gearbox penalty for the Finn means it’s Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel who will start alongside Hamilton on the front row.

Fourth and fifth fastest were the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, followed by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who like compatriot Bottas has a five-place gearbox penalty. The Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon were seventh and eighth, with Williams’ Felipe Massa and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso completing the top 10.

Early in the hour, Q1 came to an explosive end as Romain Grosjean lost control of his Haas going up the hill behind the paddock, after putting a wheel over the curb. It hit the outer tire wall hard, removing its nose and the left front wheel, but the Frenchman walked away unharmed. With 1m 18s remaining, the session was not restarted.

Hamilton had set the pace with 1:29.047, from Raikkonen on 1:29.163 and Verstappen on 1:29.181. Bottas, Vettel and Ricciardo followed, the Mercedes driver hugely lucky to get away with a massive slide into the dirt in Degner 2 on his first run. Interestingly, however, only Hamilton and Vettel were using the soft Pirelli tires, the rest had supersofts.

Having come close to Michael Schumacher’s absolute track record of 1:28.954 in Q1, Hamilton didn’t just beat it in Q2, he unofficially pulped it, with a stunning lap of 1:27.819 on supersofts. Vettel’s best was 1:28.482 on the same rubber, as Raikkonen got close to Hamilton’s Q1 best on softs, with 1:29.079. That was soon bettered by Bottas, Verstappen and Ricciardo, however. Later, Vettel improved to 1:28.225, but Hamilton and Mercedes had made a massive statement ahead of Q3.

Further back, Alonso just aced McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, who on 1:29.778 just failed to beat the Spaniard to the final Q3 slot. He was followed by Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault on 1:29.879, Kevin Magnussen’s surviving Haas on 1:29.972, Jolyon Palmer’s Renault on 1m 30.022, and Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso on 1:30.413.

Bottas set the early pace in Q3 with 1:27.986, but Hamilton immediately beat that with 1:27.345s before Vettel did likewise with 1:27.797. Ricciardo and Verstappen followed on 1:28.444 and 1:28.985, respectively.

Could Hamilton stay ahead and take pole for the first time at Suzuka?

Indeed he could, as he trimmed down to 1:27.319 to head Bottas, who cut down to 1:27.651 to beat Vettel, who improved to 1:27.791. Verstappen momentarily went ahead of Ricciardo with 1:28.332, but the Aussie took fourth place back with 1m 28.306 as Raikkonen was left sixth on 1:28.498.

Behind them, Ocon held on to seventh with 1:29.111 from teammate Perez on 1:28.260, with Massa close on 1:28.480 and Alonso distant on 1:30.687.

“Firstly, look at this crowd – we have such a great crowd,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a really good day and every lap was fantastic. You were rapid here, Nico was rapid here, I never really got a great balance in the past and I never did great in qualifying, so to finally get the balance behind me, with the great work of my engineers, and the great timing from all the mechanics, I finally got on track and did the time. And the car is crazy here, I wish you could feel it, man!”