Lewis Hamilton takes Japan pole as Ferrari pay for blunder
Sebastian Vettel running out of time in title race as he qualifies in ninth spot at Suzuka
Lewis Hamilton secured pole position in the Japan Grand Prix. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters
Lewis Hamilton believes Ferrari are cracking under the pressure of this season’s championship fight after he took another major stride towards winning the world title.
Hamilton will start the Japanese Grand Prix from the front of the grid after claiming an 80th pole position of his record-breaking career at the Suzuka circuit on Saturday.
Sebastian Vettel, who is already a distant 50 championship points behind Hamilton, lines up only ninth after an embarrassing tyre blunder by Ferrari cost the German dearly in qualifying.
It did not help that Vettel was also culpable of another error as, in attempting to make amends for his team’s mistake, he ran off the circuit at Spoon and finished 4.4 seconds down. His team-mate Kimi Raikkonen qualified fourth.
Despite only a smattering of rain drops in the moments before the shootout for pole, Ferrari elected to put Vettel on wet tyres. Hamilton headed out on the slick rubber.
While the Englishman posted the pole lap, Vettel had to dash back to the pits for a change of tyres. By the time he was ready to set his best effort, a rain shower left him terribly exposed.
The track became increasingly damp, and there would be no challenge to Hamilton who, barring a disaster, will now extend his title lead and further tighten his grip on championship number five.
“Every team has smart people, but ultimately when it comes to being under pressure and making the right decisions and the right calls, that is why we are the best in the world,” a delighted Hamilton said.
“It adds to the momentum of this championship. It is always difficult to make the right call, but that is another real big difference that we as a team have made this year.
“The Ferrari cars pulled out of the garage on the intermediate tyres, and I honestly didn’t think it was the right decision.”
Hamilton was not alone. Vettel was already on the radio even before he left the pits to tell his team they had messed up. It was too late.
Vettel’s ensuing mistake also supports one paddock theory that his error-prone campaign has been sparked by trying to manage his hapless Italian team from inside the Ferrari cockpit.
On Saturday night, the 31-year-old German toed the party line, but he will know that this latest setback is likely to mean the end of his championship challenge.
“We expected more rain, and it didn’t come straightaway so it was the wrong decision,” he said.
“I am not blaming anybody. It doesn’t matter who made the call. Why does it matter? It was our call.
“If it starts to rain five or six minutes earlier then we performed a miracle because we are the only clever ones. If it turns out the way it does then we are stupid. I defend the decision.”
The best Vettel can realistically hope for in Japan on Sunday is fourth and if, as expected, Hamilton takes the chequered flag, the British driver will move 63 points clear with 100 on the table. It means the championship could be decided as early as the United States Grand Prix in a fortnight’s time.
“It has been an incredible year, but never in a million years did I think I would get to 80,” said Hamilton, now 12 poles ahead of any other driver in the sport’s history. “80 is not the end, but it is a milestone I am very proud of.
“It makes me think of all the great years that I have had, and quite a few of those were at McLaren when we didn’t always have a championship-winning car.”