|(L to R) Heikki Kovalainen (3rd), Lewis Hamilton (1st and Kimi Raikkonen (2nd)|
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton will start Sundayâ€™s Japanese Grand Prix from pole position after setting a time of 1m18.404 in the final moments of Saturdayâ€™s thrilling qualifying session. Todayâ€™s result marked Lewisâ€™s 12th time on the pole, the seventh for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes this year. Hamilton ended up two-tenths faster than the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen who is suspected of running lighter on fuel.
As expected qualifying ended up being a straight fight between McLaren and Ferrari with Fernando Alonso sneaking into fourth in the final moments in his Renault.
It was good to have a dry qualifying session here at Fuji, compared to the wet and foggy conditions we saw here last season, and it was an exciting session too. We saw interesting differences between the Q2 and Q3 times from competitors, so tomorrow there will be a range of different strategies.
Felipe Massa was fifth and Robert Kubica was sixth.
|Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren Mercedes looks unbeatable|
The two Toyotas were seventh and eighth with Jarno Trulli outqualifying Timo Glock but given the team's playing with fuel loads in practice it was hard to know whether or not these lap times can be taken seriously or not.
The top 10 was completed by the two Scuderia Toro Rossos with Sebastian Vettel, half a second clear of his slower teammate Sebastien Bourdais.
It was interesting to note that the circuit seemed to divide the teams on a team-by-team basis, indicating the driver means less in F1 than say NASCAR where this seldom happens. For the most part F1 is a Team computer vs. Team computer series and while NASCAR requires far more driver talent as Juan Montoya has found out.
With a pole position and a seven point advantage in the championship, things are looking pretty good for Lewis Hamilton to all but cement the world title at Fuji Speedway.
"Usually, on a heavy fuel load, the car can be quite tough to drive on the limit, but I managed to pull all the sectors together and drove a pretty good lap. It wasn't perfect - I made a small mistake in the final corner, where I lost a tenth - but we had a good session," said Hamilton afterward.
"The team has done a phenomenal job all weekend, and Heikki's and my pace today really underlines that. We think we've got a good strategy for tomorrow and we want to finish at the front."
Second place Raikkonen said "I'm pleased to be back on the front row, even if I'm not totally happy as I always want to be the fastest. On top of that, I'm not completely satisfied with the handling of my car: all weekend we have worked very hard to find the best set-up but we did not get it a hundred percent right. All the same, we have improved our performance, especially with a heavy fuel load.
"This result means I'm in good shape for the race. Tomorrow, I will try to make the best of the situation. My aim is to finish this season in the best way possible and help the team to win both championships."
Meanwhile Felipe Massa saw his chances of overhauling a seven-point gap to title rival Lewis Hamilton take a blow in qualifying as he struggled in final qualifying, ending up fifth on the grid.
"In Q1 and Q2 the car was great but in Q3 I didn't have any grip or the same balance as before," Massa said. "Maybe it was the fuel or something else."
"It won't be easy to make it up in the race from fifth but for sure that's something we have to work at tomorrow," he added.
Felipe Massa seemed in the hunt for pole position until the decisive Q3 segment, when Lewis Hamilton snatched top spot and the Brazilian qualified just fifth. "I'd go so far as to say that it was possibly the best lap of Lewis' career so far," said team boss Ron Dennis. Heikki Kovalainen is third.
Massa has been on Hamilton's pace all weekend, so he is disappointed to be fifth on the grid. "I never had the right amount of grip in Q3," he lamented. Conversely, Kimi Raikkonen was not a contender at Fuji until the fuel-affected Q3, raising suspicions Ferrari is playing tactics for the race. "My aim is to help the team to win both championships," said the Finn.
Like Kovalainen and Massa, Fernando Alonso did a 1.18.8 in Q3, and is fourth. Nelson Piquet was 4 tenths slower in Q2, when he failed to be among the fastest ten.
He has a new contract for 2009, but Nick Heidfeld has struggled all weekend at Fuji, where he dropped out with the Q1 stragglers. Robert Kubica, however, was just 2 tenths quicker in that segment, but went on to qualify sixth. "We wanted to have enough sets of the softer tire for the remainder of qualifying and for the race. This decision cost Nick a place in Q2," said technical boss Willy Rampf.
Timo Glock, fastest of all in Q1, has been a feature of proceedings at the Toyota-owned Fuji Speedway, and he qualified eighth, albeit one place behind his teammate Jarno Trulli. "We are slightly disappointed by the positions, but it's really a matter of where people will stop tomorrow," said Pascal Vasselon.
Despite a deficit of five tenths, Sebastien Bourdais was happy to follow his teammate into Q3, on the type of circuit at which Sebastian Vettel usually excels. "I think the car has improved a bit after the team found a couple of things on the aero side which has helped," Bourdais said.
Neither RB4 made Q3, but Mark Webber was the most disappointed Red Bull driver, after failing to out qualify his retiring teammate David Coulthard for only the second time in 2008. "I didn't get it together and you pay the price," the Australian said.
Both Williams drivers scraped through Q1, but could qualify no higher than P14 and 15, with Kazuki Nakajima higher placed than Nico Rosberg. "He's been a little bit quicker than me and I'm pleased for him as he's in front of his home crowd," Rosberg said.
The Hondas were quicker only than back-row dwellers Force India, with Rubens Barrichello ahead of Jenson Button. "Hopefully the race will be better," said the latter.
The Force Indias are at the back of the grid, with Giancarlo Fisichella dead last and not on Adrian Sutil's pace. "We were just one second from pole, which was very good and competitive but still not enough," said Sutil.