Lewis Hamilton stormed to pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix as his temperamental Mercedes decided to play nice at Suzuka.
The championship leader has a great chance to build on the 34-point gap he holds over closest challenger Sebastian Vettel after a fine showing yesterday.
No one could get close to Hamilton as the three-time world champion broke the lap record here on his way to his maiden pole around this circuit.
Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas came closest but he starts sixth after an unscheduled gearbox change saw him hit with a five-place grid penalty.
That means the Ferrari of Vettel will now start alongside Hamilton, who labelled his car “stubborn” on Thursday as it has only been performing at its best during specific conditions of late.
Team boss Toto Wolff called this year’s car “capricious” in Malaysia last weekend where Hamilton took pole and finished second despite both Ferrari and Red Bull having better pace than Mercedes.
Now the 32-year-old wants his car – also likened to a “diva” by Wolff – to stay with him as he looks to increase his championship lead.
“Definitely,” Hamilton replied when asked if his car had paid him back for being unpredictable in recent months. “Qualifying for me is probably the most enjoyable part of the weekend so being able to put together laps like today, it is the one you wait for all weekend.
“Q3, run one and two, are really what motorsport is all about – it is about ultimate performance from myself but also the car.
“So it is definitely great when she comes together on days like that and it is important because if we were on the back foot here it wouldn’t be a great position to be in. Let’s hope she’s not stubborn tomorrow.”
Hamilton can finally add Suzuka to the growing list of circuits where he has started from the front, and he paid tribute to his Mercedes team for helping him achieve his record 71st pole.
“It was definitely a fantastic session,” he added. “How your team time everything, in terms of what time you go out, positioning, preparation with the mechanics, all that stuff has to work perfectly and the team were so on form, as they always are.”
After crashing out at the first corner in Singapore and recovering from last on the grid to finish fourth last weekend in Malaysia, Vettel is expecting a close fight today.
“I’m pretty happy to be honest,” he said. “It was a positive day. I think the car should be a bit better in the race. We will see. I don’t know what sort of pace they [Mercedes] will have, they have been a bit up and down. So far this year has been very close and I expect it to be very close tomorrow.”
The Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will start on the second row, while Esteban Ocon is fifth for Force India.
Bottas is now sixth ahead of the second Force India of Sergio Perez, while Felipe Massa’s Williams, the McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne and the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen complete the top ten.
Meanwhile, British driver Jolyon Palmer will leave Renault after racing in the Japanese Grand Prix.
The 26-year-old, in his second season in Formula One, departs to make way for Spaniard Carlos Sainz who joins from Toro Rosso.
Renault said the decision for Palmer to leave the team had been taken “by mutual agreement”. The driver change will take effect in time for the next race on the calendar – the US Grand Prix on 22 October.
Toro Rosso announced Sainz’s seat would be taken by French driver Pierre Gasly in Austin in a fortnight’s time.