Formula One leader Lewis Hamilton smashed the Suzuka track record to seize a dominant Japanese grand prix pole position on Saturday with Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel lining up alongside on the front row.
Red Bull pair Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will start Sunday’s race from third and fourth on the grid.
Mercedes’ Hamilton produced a stunning fastest lap of one minute and 27.319 seconds for his first pole at the 5.8km track and 71st of his career.
The time shattered seven time world champion Michael Schumacher’s previous outright best at the circuit by 1.6 seconds.
“Incredible,” said the Briton, in post-qualifying interviews conducted by his former McLaren teammate Jenson Button in front of the crowd. “It’s been a really good day and every lap was fantastic.
“It’s my first time. I’m running out of opportunities to get this pole, so I was like ‘I’ve got to make sure I make it stick today’,” added Hamilton, who was on pole in Japan at Fuji in 2007 for McLaren.
His teammate Valtteri Bottas was second quickest, 0.332 seconds adrift but drops five places down the grid due to an unscheduled gearbox change.
The penalty will elevate Vettel to the front row of the grid, putting the two title contenders side by side for Sunday’s heavyweight battle between multiple champions.
Hamilton, who leads the German by 34 points with just five races to go, brushed aside a suggestion about how aggressive Vettel might be into the first corner.
“I don’t know. He won’t be any more aggressive than I am,” said the triple champion.
“I’ve got eight metres. I need to make sure I keep the eight metres that I have and get a good start. Starts have generally been strong this year.”
Vettel, a four time world champion, needs a big result this weekend to close the gap after suffering successive setbacks to his bid for a fifth title.
Saturday was Hamilton’s 10th pole of the season and marked a convincing return to the top of the timesheets for Mercedes after the champions struggled for pace at the last two races in Singapore and Malaysia.