Mercedes Lewis Hamilton took his eighth pole position of the season at Suzuka and the 80th of his career, while title rival Sebastian Vettel faces a ninth-place race start after a troubled final segment of qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix.
Valtteri Bottas will start alongside Hamilton in the second Mercedes, while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen with start at the front of row three, alongside the second Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen.
Vettel established an early benchmark in Q1 with a lap of 1:29.049, more than half a second clear of Ferrari team-mate Kimi Räikkönen. Hamilton soon bypassed Vettel to take P1, however, with a lap of 1:28.702 that left him 0.347 ahead of the Ferrari man.
Vettel then had a spin at the hairpin, but there was worse to come for Marcus Ericsson who lost control of his Sauber in Turn 7 and hit the barriers hard. Ericsson was soon out of his car but the red flags were immediately shown.
In the final runs of Q1, Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly made the biggest jump, climbing from P15 to P10 at the end of the session. It was a necessary improvement, as Williams’ Lance Stroll put in a good final lap to jump to 15th place with a time well clear of Gasly’s best time from before the final laps.
Stroll’s escape from the drop zone meant that Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg was eliminated in P16 ahead of Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin, the McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne and the unfortunate Ericsson.
In Q2, Mercedes both Hamilton and Bottas out on soft tyres, and this time it was Bottas who set the pace, the Finn topping the timesheet at the end of the session with a lap of 1:27.987, three hundredths of a second ahead of Hamilton.
Further back there was trouble for Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian began his opening run but experienced a power loss and quickly returned to the pits.
With the covers going back on his car in the final minutes of the session, it looked like his team had solved the issue, but rain was already falling on track and as conditions worsened Ricciardo’s hopes of getting in a lap dwindled. He was ruled out in P15 with no time on the board in Q2.
Also ruled out at the end of Q2 were 11th-placed Leclerc, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, Renault’s Carlos Sainz and Stroll.
In Q3 it was Ferrari’s turn to encounter trouble. Rain was expected, but it didn’t arrive soon enough for the Italian and they sent Räikkönen and Vettel out on intermediate tyres at the start of the session. Both were forced to lap and pit for slick tyres, putting them out of sequence to the other front runners.
Hamilton staked a claim to pole position with a time of 1:27.760, more than two tenths ahead of Bottas, while Verstappen slotted into third place on the timesheet. Räikkönen managed to sneak in a lap to take fourth place, but Vettel made a mistake on his opening lap and was forced to try again. By the time he was ready for a hot lap rain was falling and his chance was gone. He ended the session in P9 between the Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez.
With the conditions growing steadily worse, the session was effectively over and after the clock had counted down to the flag, Hamilton duly took his 80th career pole position ahead of Bottas, Verstappen and Räikkönen. Grosjean was fifth for Haas, while Brendon Hartley scored his best ever qualifying result with sixth place, just ahead of Toro Rosso team-mate Gasly.
2018 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix – Qualifying
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:27.760
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:28.059 0.299
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing 1:29.057 1.297
4 Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari 1:29.521 1.761
5 Romain Grosjean Haas 1:29.761 2.001
6 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso 1:30.023 2.263
7 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso 1:30.093 2.333
8 Esteban Ocon Racing Point Force India 1:30.126 2.366
9 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:32.192 4.432
10 Sergio Perez Racing Point Force India 1:37.229 9.469
11 Charles Leclerc Sauber 1:29.864 2.104
12 Kevin Magnussen Haas 1:30.226 2.466
13 Carlos Sainz Renault 1:30.490 2.730
14 Lance Stroll Williams 1:30.714 2.954
15 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull Racing
16 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1:30.361 2.601
17 Sergey Sirotkin Williams 1:30.372 2.612
18 Fernando Alonso McLaren 1:30.573 2.813
19 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren 1:31.041 3.281
20 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1:31.213 3.453