The four championship contenders will line up in the top four positions with both McLarens leading the way into tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix.
A wet session saw a couple of surprise appearances in the top ten – namely Jenson Button, seventh, and Sebastian Vettel, ninth.
Before qualifying there was widespread doubt over whether the session would even begin, as low-hanging cloud made visibility poor. Similar conditions and forced the abandonment of the first practice session after only three drivers had done laps.
But to some surprise the session was given the go-ahead and the drivers tip-toed en masse onto a cold and wet track that at least didn’t feature too much standing water.
To begin with several drivers lapped on full wet tyres. But those on intermediate tyres generally found the track more to their liking – except Sebastian Vettel who spun in front of Lewis Hamilton.
The lap times quickly began to tumble with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, both on intermediates, sat at the top of the times.
The battle to get into the top 16 came down to which driver could be the last to set a time on a drying track. On top of which, shortly after the chequered flag Ralf Schumacher spun into Sakon Yamamoto’s Spyker, forcing drivers to slow down.
Two late escapees from the bottom six were Lewis Hamilton and Nick Heidfeld, vaulting clear with only seconds to spare.
But after the drama of qualifying on a wet track there were no major surprises in the first six to be eliminated which included both home drivers.
Nico Rosbeg had almost a second’s advantage over team mate Alexander Wurz, who was knocked out. Ralf Schumacher ended the session 14th, but without a car, and so seven cars failed to progress to the second part of qualifying.
Bottom six drivers’ times for part one
17. Rubens Barrichello 1’27.323
18. Alexander Wurz 1’27.454
19. Anthony Davidson 1’27.564
20. Adrian Sutil 1’28.628
21. Takuma Sato 1’28.792
22. Sakon Yamamoto 1’29.668
To begin with the McLarens sat on top of the charts, Alonso and Hamilton swapping fastest times. They were followed by both of the Ferraris and then Jenson Button, the Honda driver revelling in the wet conditions as usual.
With five minutes left the Renaults, Toro Rossos and Jarno Trulli were in the bottom six, with Schumacher’s Toyota already resigned to elimination.
Sebastian Vettel set a late quick lap – one second faster than team mate Vitantonio Liuzzi – to move up to tenth. That in turn knocked fellow Red Bull driver David Coulthard out of the top ten, and put a Toro Rosso in the final ten for the first time this year.
But none of the other drivers succeeded in escaping the bottom six, leaving only one Japanese car in qualifying – Button’s.
Bottom six drivers’ times for part two
11. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’26.033
12. Heikki Kovalainen 1’26.232
13. David Coulthard 1’26.247
14. Jarno Trulli 1’26.253
15. Vitantonio Liuzzi 1’26.948
16. Ralf Schumacher no time
Also out in the final part of qualifying were Alonso, the Ferraris and BMWs, Rosberg, Button and Mark Webber.
The drivers got stuck into their ‘fuel credit’ laps with little drama, except for Raikkonen who had a brief moment off the track on one of Fuji’s enormous tarmac run-offs.
Hamkilton was one of the first drivers to duck into the pits for fresh tyres, but his first lap was only good enough for third behind Alonso and Raikkonen. He did a second lap and then returned to the pits for more tyres.
The Ferrari drivers were also having problems – Massa was briefly stuck behind Heidfeld and Raikkonen has a brief off on his first lap out of the pits.
On the final set of times, however, everyone found a little more time. Alonso’s 1’25.438 looked good enough for pole, and Raikkonen slotted in behind him less than eight hundredths of a second behind.
But Hamilton, after another stop in the pits, had just one lap left and he nailed it. There was a hair-raising moment as he blasted towards the finishing line as he shot past Vettel’s car, before edging Alonso off pole position by seven hundredths of a second.
There was the usual gap between the Ferraris and BMWs with Nick Heidfeld in his traditional ‘best of the rest’ place. Rosberg’s sixth will become 16th after is engine penalty, but he’ll still start ahead of team mate Wurz.
Button will move up to sixth after edging out Webber by one thousandth of a second. Vettel finished three-tenths ahead of Kubica.
Top ten drivers’ times for part three
1. Lewis Hamilton 1’25.368
2. Fernando Alonso 1’25.438
3. Kimi Raikkonen 1’25.516
4. Felipe Massa 1’25.765
5. Nick Heidfeld 1’26.505
6. Nico Rosberg 1’26.728
7. Jenson Button 1’26.913
8. Mark Webber 1’26.914
9. Sebastian Vettel 1’26.973
10. Robert Kubica 1’27.225
Photos: Ferrari Media | GEPA / Bildagentur Kraeling | Daimler Chrysler