SUZUKA (Japan) • Lewis Hamilton struck a huge psychological blow in the Formula One title race yesterday, with a sizzling qualifying drive to take pole position for today's Japanese Grand Prix.
The Briton, who leads Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel by 34 points with five races left, steered his Mercedes to a track record of 1min 27.319sec with team-mate Valtteri Bottas second fastest.
The time shattered seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher's previous mark at the circuit by 1.6 seconds.
Vettel, though, will join Hamilton on the front row after Bottas incurred a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change to his Mercedes on Friday.
"The car is crazy here," said three-time world champion Hamilton, after his 71st career pole and his first at Suzuka. "This track has always been one of the greatest and with this car it's just mind-blowing."
He is looking to hit back after being stunned by Red Bull's Max Verstappen in Malaysia last weekend.
"With the downforce we now have, it's three seconds faster than before and it's just insane speeds that this car is throwing us around inside," he said. "It's incredible, my first pole position here - 10th time lucky or whatever it is."
A three-time winner of the Japanese Grand Prix, Hamilton fired a clear warning to Vettel, who realistically needs to win this weekend to revive his fading title hopes.
TOP QUALIFYING RESULTS
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
Esteban Ocon (Force India) Sergio Perez (Force India)
Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) Felipe Massa (Williams)
Stoffel Vandoorne (McLaren) Nico Hulkenberg (Renault)
Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) Kevin Magnussen (Haas)
"The car is a lot different this weekend and a lot more enjoyable to drive," said Hamilton. "It's definitely great when it comes together like this. Naturally the Ferraris will be rapid tomorrow but the plan is to keep them behind."
Vettel, who finished fourth in Malaysia after starting from last, set the tempo in Friday's rain-hit practice but was well off the pace in qualifying.
"I tried everything on that last lap as I knew I had to take a bit more risks," said Vettel. "I knew that we'd be on front row because of Valtteri's penalty, so I'm pretty happy.
"I would have loved to have been a bit quicker but it's quite amazing with the new cars around here. I love the track."
Daniel Ricciardo was fourth fastest, followed by Verstappen - putting the two Red Bulls on the second row.
Hamilton brushed aside a suggestion about how aggressive Vettel might be, going into the first corner today.
"I don't know. He won't be any more aggressive than I am," he said.
"I've got eight metres. I need to make sure I keep the eight metres that I have and get a good start. Starts have generally been strong this year."
Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth quickest, but was also demoted five places after switching his gearbox following a shunt in yesterday's practice session.
There were more hair-raising moments in qualifying as Bottas, who crashed in the morning's free practice, almost lost control early on.
Romain Grosjean was less fortunate and smashed into a wall moments later, mangling his Haas. "Massive oversteer - I don't know what happened," snapped the Frenchman over the team radio.
Former world champion Fernando Alonso outqualified McLaren team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne, but it mattered little as the Spaniard will start the race from last after changing his engine overnight.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
F1 JAPANESE GP
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