Lap 2/53: Leclerc is being encouraged to stay on and see how he goes. Bottas keeps his lead from Vettel, Leclerc and Hamilton.
Terrible start for Vettel, who is immediately passed by Bottas. Wing damage for Leclerc after a tussle with Verstappen, who spins off the track. Leclerc in third but is staying on the track despite reporting damage to his team. Incredible opening to this race!
OK, we are just moments away from the start … hold on tight. It’s formation lap time. All drivers from the top 10 on the grid are using soft tyres.
Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto is sporting a grin that would make the Joker look straight faced: “We are very happy. Suzuka is a difficult circuit but it is now five poles in a row.”
As for team tactics, with two drivers on the front row, Binotto isn’t giving much away: “Nothing sophisticated. We are simply trying to do our best. It’s good to start ahead but the race will be difficult.”
The strong winds at Suzuka played their part in qualifying and will likely do so in the race. At present, it’s a strong tailwind down the straight to the line with a headwind into the ‘S’ Curves and down the back straight into the Spoon Curve. How will that shape the tactics of both the Ferrari and Mercedes teams? At any rate, cannot wait to see how Vettel handles pole position after his antics in Sochi. No doubt his intention will be to never see a car from lap 1 through to 53. Incredibly, and ominously perhaps for Mercedes, this Suzuka track has never produced a winner from the second row.
What of Mercedes? The general consensus is that Suzuka is tailor-made for the car but their bid for a sixth straight win in the Japanese GP – they haven’t lost at Suzuka in the hybrid engine era – looks less than straightforward now after Ferrari’s tour de force in qualifying. Still, the Silver Arrows will have their own plans with both Bottas and Hamilton enjoying an unobstructed view of their Ferrari rivals on the grid. And they’ll need them. Around 0.3 secs clear of their rivals through practice, the gap was turned on its head in qualifying with Hamilton 0.238 secs behind the best that Vettel could muster.
Hamilton’s win in Russia strengthened his grip on the title but he can’t wrap up his sixth drivers’ championship today. It is possible, however, for the champ to eliminate everyone bar Bottas from contention heading to Mexico. Vettel is one of four men mathematically in the hunt of running down Hamilton, but he is a whopping 128 points in arrears of the Brit. Bottas (73 points behind Hamilton), Leclerc (107) and Max Verstappen (110) are the others. As for Mercedes, they can equal Ferrari’s record of six consecutive constructors’ championships at Suzuka if they outscore the Scuderia by 14 points.
The stage is set for an epic race.
1 Vettel 2 Leclerc
3 Bottas 4 Hamilton
5 Verstappen 6 Albon
7 Sainz Jr 8 Norris
9 Gasly 10 Grosjean
11 Giovinazzi 12 Stroll
13 Räikkönen 14 Kyvat
15 Hulkenberg 16 Ricciardo
17 Perez 18 Russell
19 Magnussen 20 Kubica
Lights out: 4.10pm (AEDT)
Good afternoon, sports fans. Welcome to a Sunday at Suzuka that, thanks to Typhoon Hagibis, can only be described as super. This is just the fifth time in Formula One history that qualifying and the race has been held on the same day. And the morning’s action didn’t disappoint, whetting the appetite for what should be a fascinating race.
Qualifying belonged solely to Ferrari, the Scuderia locking out the front row with Sebastian Vettel to start from pole ahead of Charles Leclerc. It’s Ferrari’s fifth successive pole position, a feat they haven’t achieved since 2001 and something that will be even more satisfying after the dominance of Mercedes in practice. The Mercedes duo of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton will start on the second row.
Ferrari’s tactics this afternoon will be fascinating after the meltdown of Sochi. Regardless, the simmering rivalry between Leclerc and Vettel is now compulsory viewing. Prior to Japan, Leclerc had outqualified Vettel in the past nine GPs and following qualifying Damon Hill suggested to Leclerc that he had awoken the beast inside Vettel. Certainly, the rise of the Monégasque driver has given rise to the theory that Vettel is fast becoming yesterday’s man. That train of thought has been derailed after qualifying and, if anything, Vettel can thank his teammate for stirring the competitive juices.
Mercedes looked to be the team to beat after Friday’s practice sessions but conditions on Sunday morning were quite different. Clear, dry but still windy, Vettel commented after qualifying that he felt his Ferrari was almost glued to the long-radius corners of Suzuka and that he only needed his brake once.
How do you see the race panning out? Get involved, and keep me company, by dropping a comment below, emailing me or getting in touch via Twitter – @scott_heinrich.