Nico Rosberg strengthened his bid for a maiden Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2016 by taking pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Saturday.
Rosberg arrived in Japan leading the standings by 23 points after Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton’s retirement in Malaysia, the two poised to renew their battle at Suzuka.
Hamilton trailed Rosberg through all three practice sessions, and the German continued to lead in Q1 and Q2, enjoying an advantage of almost half a second in the middle stage of qualifying.
Come Q3 though, the momentum swung decisively in Hamilton’s direction. Rosberg’s first hot lap didn’t go smoothly, giving Hamilton the opportunity to go almost two-tenths of a second quicker and take provisional pole. For the first time at Suzuka this weekend, Hamilton was ahead.
Rosberg lit up the first sector purple on his final qualifying effort, only for Hamilton to go faster still as he followed on-track. However, a mighty middle-sector proved crucial for Rosberg to take provisional pole with a lap of 1:30.647. As Hamilton crossed the line, he fell 0.013 seconds short. For the third year in a row at Suzuka, pole belonged to Rosberg.
Kimi Raikkonen led a tightly-knit group of Ferraris and Red Bulls, his lap three-tenths of a second shy of Rosberg’s effort to leave him P3 on the grid. Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel followed in P4 ahead of the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. Vettel will drop to seventh on the grid as a result of his grid penalty from Malaysia.
Sergio Perez qualified seventh for Force India, with teammate Nico Hulkenberg sitting ninth on another good day for the team. However, the star team of qualifying was Haas as Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both made it through to Q3 for the first time, eventually finishing eighth and 10th respectively.
Williams endured a fairly miserable qualifying session as neither Valtteri Bottas nor Felipe Massa made it through to Q3, giving rivals Force India yet more ammunition in the race for P4 in the constructors’ championship. Bottas qualified 11th, 0.08 seconds off the top 10, with Massa another 0.06 seconds further back in P12. Daniil Kvyat was left lamenting traffic during his Q2 run, limiting him to 13th place on the grid ahead of Toro Rosso teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.
McLaren narrowly avoided embarrassment in Honda’s home qualifying session as Alonso narrowly made it through to Q2 and qualified 15th, ensuring that he did not join teammate Jenson Button in the Q1 dropzone. Button qualified 17th, 0.032 seconds behind Alonso, after a stellar lap from Jolyon Palmer pushed his compatriot out fo qualifying before going on to qualify 16th. Teammate Kevin Magnussen could not match his teammate’s pace, finishing 18th.
Sauber had a relatively routine session, qualifying 19th and 20th with Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr, but its cars were very nearly split by Esteban Ocon. The Manor driver impressed with a lap that was just 0.021 seconds slower than Nasr’s, leaving him 21st on the grid ahead of teammate Pascal Wehrlein.
The Japanese Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET on Sunday.