SUZUKA, Japan -- Lewis Hamilton smashed the track record at Suzuka to claim a comfortable pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, where he will start ahead of title rival Sebastian Vettel on the front row.
After struggling for pace at the last two races in Singapore and Malaysia , Mercedes returned to form in Japan with Hamilton looking untouchable in all three qualifying sessions. His final benchmark was 0.332s quicker than the nearest man, teammate Valtteri Bottas, but the Finn will drop five places down the order once his grid penalty for a gearbox change is applied. That penalty will elevate Ferrari's Vettel one place after he set the third fastest time -- 0.140s off Bottas' time and 0.472s off Hamilton's benchmark.
Hamilton's advantage over Vettel was mainly found in the opening sector of the lap, which consists of the pit straight and a series of sweeping esses back up the hill. The combination of all three sectors saw him set a lap time 1.7s faster than Michael Schumacher's 2006 Q2 lap time at Suzuka, which had stood as the track record for over a decade. It was also Hamilton's first pole position at Suzuka -- the only track on the current calendar where he has not started from pole position during his career.
Red Bull drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen took fourth and fifth ahead of the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, which was repaired between sessions after he crashed at Degner 2 in final practice. Ricciardo was just 0.026s faster than his teammate Verstappen, and 0.192s faster than Raikkonen, who also faces a five-place grid penalty due to a gearbox change ahead of qualifying.
Force India locked out the fourth row of the grid, with Esteban Ocon 0.149s ahead of teammate Sergio Perez, who will be investigated after the session for impeding Lance Stroll's Williams during Q1. Felipe Massa took ninth on the grid in the other Williams ahead of Fernando Alonso, who looks set to start from the back of the grid due to a 35-place grid penalty for a power unit change.
Stoffel Vandoorne was knocked out of qualifying ahead of Q3 after setting a time 0.029s off Alonso's Q2 time. He will start ahead his teammate once Alonso's grid penalty is factored in and will have a free choice of tyre compounds to start the race. Nico Hulkenberg qualified 12th in the highest-placed Renault ahead of Kevin Magnussen in the Haas and teammate Jolyon Palmer, who faces a 20-place penalty for an engine change. Carlos Sainz will also drop 20 places after he set the 15th fastest time of the session for Toro Rosso.
Romain Grosjean crashed out of the first part of qualifying after losing control of his Haas between Turns 4 and 5. He complained of a handling problem on the car, but the accident itself was caused by him running wide on the exit of Turn 4 and losing the rear on the grass. The impact destroyed the front of the car and appeared to damage every corner, leaving the team with a big repair job ahead of Sunday's race.
Pierre Gasly qualified 17th behind Grosjean but ahead of Stroll, who will point to Perez as an explanation for his lowly starting position. The two Saubers will start on the back row of the grid, with Marcus Ericsson outqualifying teammate Pascal Wehrlein.