Lewis Hamilton will start the Japanese Grand Prix from pole position for the second year in a row.
And his hopes of taking a decisive lead in the championship were bolstered by Felipe Massa’s failure to qualify on the first two rows: Massa starts tomorrow’s crucial race from fifth on the grid.
Qualifying started on a largely dry track with a few damp patches off-line. The championship contenders quickly took up their places at top of the time sheets, with Lewis Hamilton ahead of Felipe Massa, and the pair followed by their respective team mates.
But as the session developed it became clear the drivers towards the rear of the field were finding much more time on their second efforts. Timo Glock demoted Hamilton from the top spot with a 1’18.138 set on medium compound tyres, and that meant every driver returned to the track hunting for a lap time improvement – apart from Nelson Piquet Jnr.
Hamilton went back on top of the times but Glock pipped him again, dipping under the 1’18s with a 1’17.945.
The battle of the bottom five claimed an unlikely scalp in the form of Nick Heidfeld. It wasn’t his first elimination during Q1 this year and with team mate Robert Kubica only 0.2s quicker it showed the BMWs were simply lacking pace. Less surprising was the round one elimination of the Hondas and Force Indias.
Bottom five drivers’ times for part one
16. Nick Heidfeld 1’18.835
17. Rubens Barrichello 1’18.882
18. Jenson Button 1’19.100
19. Adrian Sutil 1’19.163
20. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’19.910
The second part of qualifying began with most of the drivers opting for the soft tyres and the Ferraris in particular demonstrating significantly better pace on that tyre. Massa went quickest with a 1’17.287 – half a second quicker than Raikkonen, and 0.2s faster than Hamilton.
Massa and Hamilton were the only drivers who felt comfortable enough with their times not to go out for a second attempt. Nelson Piquet Jnr did his first lap later but could only manage 12th, sealing his fate.
Mark Webber failed to improve, staying 13th, with the two Williams behind him. And a late improvement by Sebastien Bourdais to tenth knocked David Coulthard out as well.
Bottom five drivers’ times for part two
11. David Coulthard 1’18.187
12. Nelson Piquet Jnr 1’18.274
13. Mark Webber 1’18.354
14. Kazuki Nakajima 1’18.594
15. Nico Rosberg 1’18.672
The McLarens, Ferraris, Toyotas and Toro Rossos made it into Q3, along with Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica, the latter doing an impressive job given that his team mate was knocked out in Q1.
Having been half a second slower than Massa in Q2, Raikkonen suddenly popped into the top spot with his first attempt in Q3. Massa was second, just over a tenth slower, with Hamilton a few hundredths behind and Kovalainen 0.004s slower than his team mate.
Raikkonen improved on his second attempt and Massa couldn’t find any time to beat him with. But behind them both Hamilton went fastest of all in the first two sectors, and stole pole from Raikkonen by almost a quarter of a second.
It got worse for Massa as he was bumped off the second row. First Fernando Alonso beat his time by a scant 0.022s, then Kovalainen beat the pair of them to demote Massa to fifth.
Top ten drivers’ times for part three
1. Lewis Hamilton 1’18.404
2. Kimi Raikkonen 1’18.644
3. Heikki Kovalainen 1’18.821
4. Fernando Alonso 1’18.852
5. Felipe Massa 1’18.874
6. Robert Kubica 1’18.979
7. Jarno Trulli 1’19.026
8. Timo Glock 1’19.118
9. Sebastian Vettel 1’19.638
10. Sebastien Bourdais 1’20.167