Lewis Hamilton has taken pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, fending off strong advances from Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen. The Scuderia didn’t have a great qualifying session and it was thanks to Raikkonen’s sudden improvement that the team aren’t completely out of contention. Massa qualified down in fifth while Heikki Kovalainen claimed third after a great final run. Fernando Alonso will start the race in fourth and Robert Kubica managed sixth in his BMW.
The first qualifying round was its usual predictable self, the drivers all resisting the urge to go out early and instead wait for the track to improve as the temperature rose. Rain had fallen overnight as well, meaning the surface was damp in places. One driver who started as he was meaning to go on was Toyota’s Timo Glock. The young German racer went fastest early on, but the time set was actually quite respectable. Although others would knock him off the top of the tables, Glock showed the paddock that Toyota meant business.
Last year I got into trouble for even suggesting that Toyota like to run corporate laps at the Japanese Grand Prix, but as the first twenty-minute session drew to a close Glock found himself at the top of the timing sheet again with an even faster time of 1m17.945s. Even eventual pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton couldn’t match Timo’s lap, setting a nearest time of 1m18.071s.
Both Force Indias were out of qualifying in Q1, Giancarlo Fisichella lapping some 0.8s shy of his team mate Adrian Sutil in the sister car. Both Hondas were also eliminated early on, Rubens Barrichello interestingly going faster than Jenson Button. And Nick Heidfeld found himself in trouble as well, only managing to set the sixteenth fastest time.
The second stage of deciding the grid saw Jarno Trulli come to terms with his team mate and the Italian closed up on Glock. Although there was to be no fastest lap in Q2 for the Toyota team, having both drivers together near the top shows improvement. In fact, all the times were close together in Fuji this afternoon, and Q2 was particularly tight. Hamilton went fastest with a 1m17.462s, and Nico Rosberg went slowest with a 1m18.672s. Just 1.2s separated the fastest from the slowest.
Leaving the show early in Q2 were both Williams, although Kazuki Nakajima was having a relatively good weekend until qualifying. The local hero has out-qualified his team mate and will line up in fourteenth position on the grid. Both Red Bulls are suffering as well, Mark Webber only qualifying in thirteenth and David Coulthard a little ahead in eleventh. Nelson Piquet Jr was the fifth and final casualty from the second part of qualifying, leaving it until the final moment before heading out and setting a lap that was only worthy of P12. He really shouldn’t have bothered.
The final ten-minute top-ten decider was actually closer to a six-minute decider as many drivers left it until quite late before venturing out on to the track. And when the drivers did finally make an appearance on-track, it was Raikkonen who all of a sudden looked ultra-sharp. Setting purple sectors the Finn quickly went to the top of the class with a lap that seemed to come from absolutely no where. Lewis Hamilton followed with a shoddy lap and could only reply with a P3 while both Scuderia Toro Rosso drivers kept out of the mix in ninth and tenth.
The final run was set up then and it was clear that Hamilton had the pace, but his McLaren was a little ragged in places. Felipe Massa should have been somewhere near the top but wasn’t enjoying his Saturday running and Heikki Kovalainen wasn’t too far behind, capitalising on Ferrari’s slight shake-up. Kimi Raikkonen went first and improved his time, compounding his pace and stretching the gauntlet further from Hamilton’s reach. Felipe Massa followed his team mate over the line and improved to second before falling down to fifth, but it was Lewis Hamilton who impressed the most with a final time that cleared the pole position by 0.24s.
Jarno Trulli corrected the order at Toyota by finally beating his team mate; the Italian lines up seventh while Glock is in eighth. Fernando Alonso set a great final lap and will start the race fourth, ahead of Felipe Massa and Robert Kubica.
And so the grid has been decided, and Ferrari need to find a way of getting Felipe Massa up towards the front. Kimi Raikkonen is pretty much out of title-contention – although the Finn can still mathematically win the title, it is highly unlikely – whereas Massa is just seven points behind Hamilton in the championship. With Kovalainen in grid-slot three though, the Scuderia have their work cut out. This could be a comeback race for Raikkonen and his reputation, where we once again see the champion give everybody a driving lesson. Or, Kimi could be light.
And just for the record, I do not believe the Toyotas were running particularly light in Q3, as their final times look fairly representative of their pace this weekend. So all in all, the race looks set to be a battle between Ferrari and McLaren although given the nature of the Fuji circuit, I’m cautious to say it’s going to be an exciting race.