As qualifying began for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, it did so with looming grid-space penalties for Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz, Jolyon Palmer, Kimi Raikkonen and a whopping 35-space grid penalty for Fernando Alonso. Hard to get excited about a qualifying session when you know you starting 35 spaces back in a 20-car field.
Free Practice 3 didn’t help matter with a crash from Raikkonen damaging his gearbox and forcing the change and subsequent grid penalty. Bottas also clouted the wall.
The circuit was dry after some serious rain earlier in the weekend as the cars took to the track for Q1. I am curious about the need for gearbox changes when hitting the wall or even the concern about needing to change it for Vettel after hitting Lance Stroll last weekend in Malaysia. We didn’t use to hear about the gearbox changes in the past but it is possibly a testament to how tightly the drivetrain in these cars are packed.
Bottas had another moment at Spoon curve on his first run but no damage to his car while Lewis Hamilton set a 1:29.507 in his Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel was 2/10’s off in his Ferrari for the first run. When Bottas managed to keep his run going and slotted just behind Hamilton at 0.007 of a second.
Raikkonen managed to slot 6th on his first run after a frantic effort to get his car repaired for qualifying while the Red Bull of Max Verstappen leapt to the top of the time sheet on his first run with a 1:29.181.
The intriguing part is that both Vettel and Hamilton set their initial times on the harder compound tire (soft) instead of the softer option (super soft). Raikkonen made another run on supersoft tires and managed to slot second just behind Hamilton.
With nearly one minute left, Hass F1’s Romain Grosjean crashed heavily and red flagged the session. A second crash in as many weeks for Grosjean can’t be endearing himself with the team and the look on Gunther Steiner and Gene Haas’s face was not good. While the Malaysia incident was not Romain’s fault, he blamed massive oversteer on the incident and said something was wrong with the car.
Grosjean, Gasly, Stroll, Ericsson and Wehrlein were knocked out in Q1.
Both Red Bulls looked very good in the esses and with both Raikkonen and Bottas facing grid penalties, the team had to be thinking they may have a real shot in Japan.
Hamilton started his first run on the red Supersoft tire and quickly set fastest first sector, fastest second sector and fastest third sector giving him a 1:27.819 breaking the circuit lap record. Vettel’s first run on the Supersoft tires was .0.662s off the pace of Hamilton.
Both Renault’s were considerably off the pace on thir first runs and they set out for the final run to see if Palmer could, for once, beat his teammate Hulkenberg in qualifying as it was 15-0 on qualifying results.
Out in Q2 was Sainz, Palmer, Magnussen, Hulkenberg, and Vandoorne with Lewis on top of the time sheets.
Lewis Hamilton has held pole position on every track on the calendar except this one, the mighty Suzuka circuit. His mission in Q3 was clear—pole position. Vettels’ mission was pole or at least right behind Hamilton with a competitive pace. The Red Bull team was looking for a bobble, a mistake ahead of them but as Q3 started, the team looked very competitive.
Hamilton pipped his teammate on his first run to yet another lap record of 1:27.345 and was 2/10’s faster than his teammate in every sector. Vettel took second 0.452s off the pace of Hamilton. Raikkonen’s first run saw him run wide at Degner like so many other drivers this weekend. While 130R may have been neutered, Degner is the real challenge now.
The final runs began with supersoft tires and Lewis leading the pack. His final attempt improved his time slightly to 1:27.319s. Ricciardo leapt ahead of teammate Verstappen and Vettel came in third but will inherit second from Bottas who has a grid penalty.
Your top three. Hamilton’s 10th pole of the season and first at Suzuka.