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.
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