Lewis Hamilton turned the screws on his title rivals by qualifying on pole for the Japanese Grand Prix while main rival Felipe Massa could only manage fifth.
The McLaren driver did not dominate, waiting until the end of the final session to hit the top of the time sheets, but when it came his fastest lap was a quarter of a second faster than second-place Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton said: “It wasn’t perfect – I made a small mistake in the final corner, where I lost a tenth – but we had a good session. Usually, on a heavy fuel load, the car can be quite tough to drive on the limit, but I managed to pull all the sectors together and drove a pretty good lap.”
Behind him, his current and former team-mates Heikki Kovalainen and Fernando Alonso also struck with late laps that secured their places on the second row and demoted Massa to the third, alongside Robert Kubica.
Massa, whose time in Q2 was the fastest of the day, said: “A shame – today I was the quickest man on track but at the wrong moment. So, I’ve ended up fifth on the grid, which is definitely not an easy place to be. The first corner is similar to the one at the Hungaroring, so I hope I can manage to repeat the good start I got there.”
Kubica did well to recover from a poor start to qualifying by his team, BMW-Sauber, that saw Nick Heidfeld fail to advance to the second session and the Polish driver only scrape through.
The top 10 was completed by the Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock, followed by the Toro Rossos of Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Bourdais.
David Coulthard was bumped from the chance to take part in the final session at the last moment by Bourdais, while Jenson Button had no real possibility of advancing from the first and will start 18th, ahead only of the Force Indias.
Coulthard had been unhappy with his car and the circuit after Friday practice, but seemed more content following qualifying: “It was very close today. That was one of my better qualifying sessions, each of my laps were very tidy.
“On the last lap I was quicker going into the final corner, but I seemed to drag more speed going into the apex, which made me very slow down to the start/finish straight.
“I would love to have got through to Q3, as it would have meant more driving in the car on low fuel, but I don’t think there was much more I could have got out of the car with the balance I had.”
Button had no option but to hope for more luck in the race itself: “It has not been the best of days for us today but hopefully the race tomorrow will be better. I have been struggling with the car for the whole weekend and have found it difficult to achieve a good balance.
“The car was better in the wet this morning, however the bumps and corner apexes are unsettling the car in the dry and we have not been able to resolve this. I had too much understeer on my final run in qualifying today which made the car very twitchy and difficult to get round the corners and I was unable to improve my lap time.
“It’s disappointing but we just have to do our best with the package that we have.”
- Lewis Hamilton – McLaren
- Kimi Raikkonen – Ferrari
- Heikki Kovalainen – McLaren
- Fernando Alonso – Renault
- Felipe Massa – Ferrari
- Robert Kubica – BMW-Sauber
- Jarno Trulli – Toyota
- Timo Glock – Toyota
- Sebastian Vettel – Toro Rosso
- Sebastien Bourdais – Toro Rosso
- David Coulthard – Red Bull
- Nelson Piquet – Renault
- Mark Webber – Red Bull
- Kazuki Nakajima – Williams
- Nico Rosberg – Williams
- Nick Heidfeld – BMW-Sauber
- Rubens Barrichello – Honda
- Jenson Button – Honda
- Adrian Sutil – Force India
- Giancarlo Fisichella – Force India