F1

Hamilton grabs pole for Japanese GP

Hamilton grabs pole for Japanese GP

It has mattered seven of 15 times this season. Lewis Hamilton of McLaren Mercedes hopes it matters Sunday when he lines up in pole position to start the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Fuji Speedway. He won a rain-lashed version of this race...

It has mattered seven of 15 times this season. Lewis Hamilton of McLaren Mercedes hopes it matters Sunday when he lines up in pole position to start the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Fuji Speedway. He won a rain-lashed version of this race from pole position last year. Saturday's pole was Hamilton's sixth this season.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren Mercedes, MP4-23.
Photo by xpb.cc.

The Englishman who was fastest in first practice Friday stamped out a race fuel-laden quick time of 1 minute, 18.404 seconds with a minute left in the third qualifying session of a knockout format to lock down the top spot on the 2.796-mile circuit intended to stage NASCAR races. Hamilton's world driving title rival Felipe Massa of Ferrari followed his teammate, current world champion Kimi Raikkonen, to second-quick time then slid down the grid as Hamilton leaped from third to first, opening a door that Renault's Fernando Alonso, winner of the most recent race in Singapore, and Hamilton teammate Heikki Kovalainen scooted through.

Hamilton lines up next to Raikkonen, Kovalainen next to Alonso, and Massa next to BMW Sauber's Kubica, who overcame mediocre Friday practices with fast time in final practice Saturday. Toyota drivers Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock occupy the fourth row. Scuderia Toro Rosso teammates Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Bourdais take the fifth row ahead of Red Bull's David Coulthard and Renault's Nelsinho Piquet. Red Bull's Mark Webber and Williams's Kazuki Nakajima line up in the seventh row ahead of Nakajima teammate Nico Rosberg and Nick Heidfeld in the second BMW Sauber. As has become habit, Honda and Force India take the final two rows, Rubens Barrichello next to Jenson Button, and Adrian Sutil next to Giancarlo Fisichella.

Hamilton leads Massa, 84-77, with BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica (64), Raikkonen (57), and Kubica teammate Nick Heidfeld (56) mathematically -- if not realistically -- in the running for the final 30 points from three races.

"Usually, when you put the heavier fuel in it gets tougher," Hamilton said. "The first lap didn't seem to be very good. I think Kimi was just ahead of me. I think I was third. But the last lap I managed to bring it home so I'm very, very happy."

Raikkonen, who will win the DHL Award for setting the most fast race laps, 10 so far this season, put his Ferrari on the front row for the first time since the French Grand Prix in June.

"It's nice to be back but it's still not where I want to be," Raikkonen said. "I'm still not very happy how things are going. I'm still not 100 percent happy with the car and it's quite frustrating. Qualifying has been the worst thing for us. We should be strong in the race but we see what we can do tomorrow. Hopefully, we'll have a good race."

Raikkonen wouldn't be drawn as to the bill of particulars regarding his F2008's drawbacks.

Kovalainen, who has been the perfect wingman to Hamilton's ace this season at McLaren said the effort continues as McLaren battle for two championships, drivers' and constructors'.

"It was a pretty good session all the way through," Kovalainen said. "It took a little bit of time to get up to speed in Q1 but then by Q2 everything felt pretty good. The car felt well balanced and then in the last session I felt I put two pretty good laps together. There were small mistakes, small moments, but I think the third was the maximum we could get today."

Bourdais reached third and final qualifying for the fourth time in the past five races in making a bid to stay on as race driver at Toro Rosso. Teammate Vettel, Italian Grand Prix winner who has emerged as top performer in the two-team Red Bull family, partners with Webber at Red Bull Racing next year after Coulthard, 37, retires at the end of this season.

One second separated fourth from 19th in the first session as full-field competitiveness threatened.

Glock's fast time in second practice Friday was derided as the result of low fuel, but the German threw down the first sub-1:18 in blowing through first qualifying with ease. He led the usual suspects, Hamilton, Massa, Raikkonen and Kovalainen then Alonso in the surging Renault, whose job-haunted teammate Nelsinho Piquet was right behind. In a cheering effort for maturity, Coulthard, 37, led Red Bull teammate Webber through ahead of Trulli.

Kubica's best time in final practice indicated BMW Sauber might have found the way after mediocre practices on Friday. Instead, Heidfeld failed to advance from first qualifying, an unwelcome fact for a team that led the constructors points race at one time this season and currently lies third behind McLaren and Ferrari, who are separated by one point.

Rain before final practice classified the track as wet and wet tires were used. Track conditions remained slightly greasy by the start of qualifying but showed a dry line.

To no one's surprise, after a disastrous Singapore Grand Prix in which then leader Massa was released from a pit stop with a fuel hose attached to his F2008, Ferrari will use a time-honored if low-tech pit-release system called a lollipop man, holder of a pole with a round placard that, when lifted, gives a driver the all-clear. Honda, however, want the electronic lights systems.

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