Suzuka: Nico Rosberg stormed to pole position at the Japanese Grand Prix in a pulsating climax to Saturday’s qualifying, piling yet more pressure on world title holder Lewis Hamilton.
The German, who has a 23-point lead over Hamilton in the Formula One championship with five races to go, will start alongside his British foe on the front row as the two Mercedes continued to dominate in Suzuka.
Rosberg has been quickest all weekend with Hamilton forced to play second fiddle after being cruelly robbed of victory in Malaysia by a blown engine six days ago.
The triple world champion asked questions of his fierce rival, but Rosberg showed nerves of steel to produce a blistering lap that pipped Hamilton by just 0.013s in a nail-biting finish to qualifying.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen will start from third in Sunday’s race, next to Dutch teenager Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.
“I knew I could do it. I just had to get my head down and nail it,” said Rosberg after securing his eighth pole of the year, the same number as Hamilton.
“The end of qualifying was pretty intense but I had a good feeling — I knew if I put in a decent lap then it should be enough,” added the German, whose slender edge over Hamilton was calculated by Mercedes to work out to just 82 centimetres.
“I still need to get the job done on the start tomorrow, then race pace, strategy. We’re feeling good about it and we think we can be quickest tomorrow.”
Reversal of fortune
Rosberg, chasing his first win in Japan and his fourth in his last five races, is hoping for a reversal of fortune at Suzuka after failing to convert pole into victory in 2014 and 2015, both times losing out to Hamilton.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel was fourth fastest for Ferrari but a three-place grid penalty for a first-corner crash with Rosberg in Malaysia means he starts seventh.
Daniel Ricciardo, who inherited victory in Sepang after Hamilton’s misfortune, lines up fifth ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez, while Vettel starts alongside Romain Grosjean’s Haas on the fourth row.
Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India and the second Haas of Esteban Gutierrez rounded out the top 10.
There was frustration for McLaren in engine supplier Honda’s home race, however, with Fernando Alonso starting on row eight and Jenson Button one row behind after failing to escape the first qualifying round.
Hamilton insisted he could still halt Rosberg’s surging momentum by winning Sunday’s race, having done exactly that in Japan the past two years.
“I did as well as I could I think,” said Hamilton, who courted controversy this week by hinting his Malaysia heartbreak may have been caused by sabotage from within Mercedes.
“History has shown you don’t have to be on pole to get the win.”
The Briton bristled when asked if he was too hard on his engines.
“For people’s reference there’s nothing wrong with my driving style,” sniffed Hamilton. “I asked the team and it’s not the case, it never has been.”