Saturday 10 December 2016

Lewis Hamilton under severe pressure at Suzuka as Nico Rosberg takes pole

Philip Duncan

Published 08/10/2016 | 10:35

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton

Championship leader Nico Rosberg turned up the heat on Lewis Hamilton by edging out his title rival to claim pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix.

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Rosberg, who leads Hamilton in the standings by 23 points, was just 13 thousandths of a second faster than his Mercedes team-mate in a nail-biting qualifying session in Suzuka on Saturday.

Kimi Raikkonen qualified third for Ferrari, while Red Bull's Max Verstappen will take advantage of Sebastian Vettel's three-place grid penalty to start fourth.

Rosberg, fastest in all three practice sessions this weekend, has now been on pole in Japan for three successive seasons, but at one stage it looked as though it would be Hamilton who would steal the initiative ahead of Sunday's race.

The world champion, who is bidding to bounce back from his engine horror show in Malaysia last Sunday, claimed provisional pole only for Rosberg to move ahead of his team-mate in the dying seconds.

His best lap of one minute and 30.647 seconds was the equivalent of 83 centimetres ahead of his team-mate at this track. And if the German is victorious on Sunday, he will take the title race out of Hamilton's hands as even if the Briton won each of the remaining four races after this weekend he would still not be guaranteed to claim the championship.

Rosberg, who has failed to win in Japan despite his impressive pole record said: "The start is going to be an important one. We have seen that it is not easy because it is downhill and there is less grip. It will be an interesting challenge."

Hamilton, a winner here last year and in 2014, added: "I'm happy with qualifying. It's been a weekend of a lot of work to get the car set up right.

"To be close, I was really happy with it. I did as well as I could. History has shown you don't have to be on pole to win here."

For Jenson Button, who will not be racing next year, Sunday's race in Japan could be his last.

And the 36-year-old, who counts his win here back in 2011 among his finest in the sport, will have it all to do after qualifying only 17th.

Button's McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso spared Honda's blushes in their home race by at least progressing to Q2. But the Spaniard will be only two places ahead of Button in 15th. Hardly the performance the Honda hierarchy would have been hoping for in front of the enthusiastic Japanese fans.

Jolyon Palmer scored the first point of his career after finishing 10th in Malaysia last Sunday, and the 25-year-old from Horsham turned in another encouraging display on Saturday.

The British rookie, who is bidding to convince his bosses at Renault that he is worthy for another campaign in the sport, made it out of Q1 and qualified 16th. His team-mate Kevin Magnussen is 18th on the grid.

Daniel Ricciardo will start fifth with Sergio Perez sixth. Vettel, penalised for his first-corner crash with Rosberg in Malaysia, is bumped down to seventh.

Press Association

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