Lewis Hamilton put his Mercedes on pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix as another disastrous Ferrari blunder left Sebastian Vettel only ninth.
Hamilton, who headed into qualifying after topping every practice session, delivered again at the Suzuka circuit to finish ahead of his team-mate Valtteri Bottas as Mercedes locked out the front row for a second consecutive race.
Vettel, 50 championship points behind Hamilton, will start way down the order after his team selected the wrong tyre in the changeable conditions.
Despite a smattering of rain drops ahead of the shootout for pole, Mercedes elected to send Hamilton out on slick rubber, and it proved to be the right call.
In contrast, Vettel, and his Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, were both on track on the intermediate tyre, and they had to stop for slicks.
By the time Vettel was ready to post a fast lap, a rain shower left the German exposed, and after he made a mistake by running off the track in damp conditions at the Spoon Curve, he finished more than four seconds adrift of Hamilton in ninth.
Raikkonen managed to qualify fourth.
The shower intensified, and there would be no challenge to Hamilton, who cruised to his 80th career pole.
“I never in a million years thought I would get to 80 poles,” he said. “(Ferrari’s mistake) adds to the championship momentum.
“It is so difficult to make the right call, but that is another real big difference that we as a team have made this year.
“When it comes to being under pressure, and making the right calls, that is why were are the best team in the world.”
Max Verstappen, who took advantage of Ferrari’s error, was asked about Hamilton’s championship battle with Vettel. “Is it still a battle?” he asked. “I am not sure.”
Thirty years ago at Suzuka, Ayrton Senna led Alain Prost home as the Brazilian sealed the world championship, and McLaren recorded yet another one-two finish of a dominant year.
Fast-forward three decades, and these are bleak times for Britain’s most successful Formula One team.
Here, on Saturday, Fernando Alonso, who is quitting the team and the sport at the end of the year, and Stoffel Vandoorne occupied the 18th and 19th slots respectively on the grid.
They should have been on the final row, only for the error-prone Marcus Ericsson to crash out of qualifying after losing control of his Sauber at the Dunlop Curve and hitting the barriers.
Daniel Ricciardo’s recent bad run took another sorry twist after he was eliminated from Q2 following yet another engine failure.
The Australian, who has now missed the top-10 shoot-out four times in the last six races, compared to only three times before during his entire Red Bull career, unleashed a roar of anger as he marched along the pit lane.
He will start 15th. Romain Grosjean finished fifth for Haas ahead of Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley.
While it is too early for Hamilton’s seemingly inevitable championship coronation to take place in Japan on Sunday evening, only a meltdown by team or driver stand in the way of glory this season.
Hamilton, who was comfortably fastest in both practice sessions at Suzuka on Friday, has recorded five victories from his last six outings to establish a dominant 50-point lead over Sebastian Vettel.
And with a maximum of only 125 championship points on the table, it is surely a case of when, rather than if, he will engrave his name alongside Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio as the owner of five world crowns.
Although Hamilton had Mercedes to thank for his 70th career win in Russia last Sunday – after they controversially used team orders to usher aside Valtteri Bottas – he has been in electric form following the summer break.
Hamilton, with inferior machinery, destroyed both Ferrari cars on their home patch in Monza last month to take a fine win, before he delivered one of the qualifying laps of his career at the next round in Singapore to pave the way for another victory. He was lightning fast on Friday, too.
As the season reaches its climax, the Briton can now afford to score four third-place finishes and one second at the final five grands prix to secure the championship spoils.
“When I look back at those recent races, I couldn’t have hoped for better performances,” Hamilton, 33, said. “There have been some dream experiences for me, performing at that level. It is what I live for.
“As the season progresses you hope that you can improve, and usually you do get better, but I didn’t know I was going to improve in the way that I have.”
If, as expected, Hamilton takes the chequered flag here on Sunday – a race that he has won in three of the past four years – then there is a small chance that he could secure the championship in America in a fortnight. The probability, however, is that he may have to wait until Mexico a week later.
“The earlier you can win the title, the better because there is less stress for the team,” he added. “You gain back some years of your life the quicker you get it done, too.”
Hamilton finished the best part of half-a-second faster than anybody else in practice on Friday. Bottas was second, while Vettel ended the day an uncomfortable 0.883 seconds down on his rival.
“This track is awesome,” a giddy Hamilton said over the radio. “I am having the best day.”
Out of the car, he added: “I’m loving driving more than ever. It’s just the best. I won’t be driving forever so you have to cherish these moments.”
Hamilton headed for Japan following a tennis date with his father, Anthony, the man who simultaneously worked multiple jobs to fund his son’s formative career, but is now somewhat on the periphery.
“We didn’t really reminisce about the past,” Hamilton said. “My dad’s having tennis lessons so I said to him we should have a game.
“I don’t play tennis, we are both terrible at it, and it was not very good to watch, but I beat him.
“I’ll always remember when I was about six, and we would go to Blockbusters in Stevenage. Afterwards he would say ‘let’s race to the car’. My little legs couldn’t carry me fast enough, and he would never let me win.
“So, the same competition happens today, and I never let him win if I can help it.” For Vettel, it is a feeling he knows all too well.
Lewis Hamilton is “hungry, focused and completely determined” to secure his fifth world championship, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has said.
Hamilton, who will head into Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix holding a 50-point lead over Sebastian Vettel with just 125 remaining, appeared alongside Wolff at Mercedes’ headquarters in Brackley on Monday.
The pair addressed the team’s workforce less than 24 hours after Hamilton’s win in Russia which edged the Brit ever closer to another title triumph.
While controversy surrounded Hamilton’s victory in Sochi, after Valtteri Bottas was ordered to step aside for his Mercedes team-mate, he has won five of the last six rounds.
“Lewis was in Brackley this week and is hungry, focused and completely determined to succeed,” Austrian Wolff said.
“It has been great to see the power he has brought to this championship, and how he has taken it to the next level since the summer break.”
Mercedes held the advantage over Ferrari in Sochi to take another step to winning an impressive fifth consecutive constructors’ championship.
The Silver Arrows have not been beaten at Suzuka, the venue for this week’s race, since 2013.
But Wolff added: “We left Sochi with a bigger lead in both championships, but we know that doesn’t mean anything because our fight with Ferrari is far from being over.
“We can take nothing for granted and we will stay at maximum attack on every front in the next races. The battle with Ferrari remains extremely close.
“Suzuka will be another challenging weekend for us. It’s a track that shows some similarities to Silverstone, where we didn’t perform as strongly this year as we had done in previous seasons.
“So we’re going to Japan knowing that we all have to be at our very best if we want to claim the win.”