SUZUKA (Japan) • Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton admitted that he did not imagine getting to 80 career poles after he clinched top spot to start today's Japanese Grand Prix, as Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel slumped to eighth after a horror showing in yesterday's qualifying.
The four-time world champion, who leads Vettel by 50 points with five races left this season, led a Mercedes front-row lockout and will start as the hot favourite to tighten his stranglehold on the Formula One championship in today's race at Suzuka.
The Briton's record-extending 80th career pole never looked in doubt, after his rampant form in completing a clean sweep of free practice earlier in the day.
"I can't believe I have 80 poles," said Hamilton, who has won five of the last six races.
"Never in a million years did I think I'd get 80. It's so difficult when the pressure is on to make the right call, but that's the big difference between us this year and that's why we're the best and the team deserve it."
Ferrari's decision to begin the top-10 shoot-out on intermediate tyres instead of super-softs backfired spectacularly, as the rain they had expected held off just long enough for Hamilton to set a fastest lap of 1min 27.760sec - three-tenths quicker than teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Vettel skidded off twice in his desperation to set a time and his starting position will be a disappointment in a season which began so brightly for him with two straight wins.
JAPANESE GP GRID
1 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes 2 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes
3 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull 4 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari
5 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas 6 Brendon Hartley (Nzl) Toro Rosso
7 Pierre Gasly (Fra) Toro Rosso 8 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari
9 Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India 10 Charles Leclerc (Mon) Sauber
15 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull 18 Fernando Alonso (Esp) McLaren
"This is not the position we deserve to be in," insisted the German. "But I think we have better pace than ninth so I'm not too worried. It's not easy when you start further back, but it's not impossible."
As Vettel's thin hopes of pipping Hamilton to a fifth world championship faded further, Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who qualified third, declared the title race over.
Asked if he would look to have a say in the battle for the F1 crown, Verstappen smiled and said: "Is it even a battle any more? I don't know!"
Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen qualified alongside the Dutchman on the second row.
Romain Grosjean steered his Haas to fifth ahead of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly, who secured sixth and seventh on the grid for Toro Rosso at the home of the team's engine suppliers Honda.
Force India's Esteban Ocon finished eighth but incurred a three-place penalty for failing to slow down sufficiently for red flags.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
F1 JAPANESE GP
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