As the heavens opened on Fuji Speedway, the battle for the drivers title has gone into overdrive with only three races left to run and four drivers still mathematically able to take the glory. Today was a battle that may prove decisive in this epic Formula One season, and it was rookie driver Lewis Hamilton who once again came out on top. His McLaren team mate and reigning world champion Fernando Alonso wasn’t too far behind and reveled in the poor conditions, while Ferrari, although ominously present, couldn’t quite match the pace of the Mercedes-powered duo.
With the rain beating down hard, the Japanese Grand Prix qualifying was going to be interesting regardless of the politics at the front of the grid. The first session saw drivers teetering around the outside of corners, hack-sawing away at steering wheels and struggling to adapt to the slippery track. Initially it seemed Lewis Hamilton was having difficulties in the worsening conditions, surely adding to the stress of his employer. Fernando Alonso on the other hand showed experience on the track and easily outpaced his rookie partner in the first few laps. Although the difference between the two was only a tenth by the end of the fifteen minutes, the route Hamilton took wasn’t exactly standard for him.
Q1 saw Rubens Barrichello fail to make the cut in the revised Honda RA107, and the Brazilian joined the Spykers, the Super Aguris and Alex Wurz in the Williams. And just prior to the chequered flag, Ralf Schumacher appeared to make a somewhat indecisive move up the inside of Sakon Yamamoto, the Spyker driver not seeing Schumacher until it was too late. The Toyota was thrown into the air, landing back down on terra-firma, missing both wings and pointing the wrong way. Although Ralf had managed to get into Q2, his qualifying adventure ended there as he vacated the car and stalked back to the pits, his facial expression only outclassed by the gloomy weather.
The second session started without Schumacher and most remaining cars were on track early to get in a safe lap. This time however, Hamilton had acclimatised himself to the wet track and immediately laid the gauntlet down with a fast time. However, as the session went on, the rain slowed and the surface began to dry. Ferrari appeared to show signs of under-performance in the changeable conditions, finishing in third and fourth behind the two McLarens, and Nick Heidfeld pipped a charging Jenson Button to fifth.
Failing to make the grade this time around were experienced drivers David Coulthard and Giancarlo Fisichella, qualifying expert Jarno Trulli, second Renault pilot Heikki Kovalainen, Vitantonio Liuzzi and of course Schumacher Jr.
The third round of qualifying showed Lewis Hamilton has settled his approach as he soaked up the pressure to post a last-gasp attempt to snatch pole away from Alonso. The spectacular lap, set in the dying seconds of Q3 demoted his team mate down the grid and will give the Briton the best chance of converting his pole in tomorrows race. The Ferrari’s completed the second row, with Kimi Raikkonen getting the better of his team mate Felipe Massa. BMW driver Nick Heidfeld once again took the best-of-the-rest in fifth, while Nico Rosberg did the best he could for sixth, although the ten grid slot penalty for the engine change from yesterday will undo all the hard work. Jenson Button finished in a season-high seventh, and will start the race in sixth as Rosberg moves back. The second surprise of qualifying was the performance of Sebastian Vettel. Having only completed a handful of races, the German rookie made it into Q3 and posted the ninth quickest lap. Not only a personal career best, but also the highest a Toro Rosso will start a race. Vettel was just a fraction behind Mark Webber, and lying in tenth is Robert Kubica.