Max Verstappen throws shade at Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari

Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari SF71H

World champion Lewis Hamilton roared to pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix as Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel slumped to ninth after a horror showing in Saturday's qualifying.

The Mercedes driver, in dominant form all weekend at the Suzuka circuit, pumped in a one minute 27.760 second lap on the super-soft tyres while it was still only just spitting with rain.

Referring to the first lap clash with Kimi Raikkonen, which saw the pair touch - forcing the Finn off track - as the Red Bull driver recovered after locking up at the final chicane and cutting across the grass, subsequently being handed the time penalty, Verstappen said: "I locked up, I could easily have cut the track, I made my best effort to get back on track".

That lap of 1m27.760s proved to be fast enough to secure pole position given renewed rain that hit the track in the middle of the session.

Hamilton held his pole advantage at the start and kept Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas at arm's length throughout the first stint, which was punctuated by a safety auto.

"It's so hard when the pressure is on to make the right call but that's the big difference between us this year and that's why we're the best and the team deserve it", added Hamilton.

Vettel trails Hamilton by 50 points with only four races to go after Sunday's Japanese round. His hopes are fading fast and he needs a huge stroke of luck now to reignite his challenge.

"Obviously it's not the position we deserve to be in".

"Anything can happen tomorrow. Tomorrow is a new day".

"We have a bigger chance now to be on the podium", said Verstappen, doubting that he would need to worry too much about the others' title battle: "Is it still a battle?"

"I got my balance in quite a nice place so I was just enjoying it".

The Australian, as a outcome, is set to start 15th.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was third.

The Honda-powered team had set a target of having both cars in Q3 after using its "Spec 3" engine for qualifying for the first time, and Hartley slotted in ahead of teammate Pierre Gasly in sixth.

"I'm stoked with that". It's really weird - obviously I have been racing a long, long time, but the happiness I have inside is as high as always.

In the first instance, Verstappen was given a 5-second time penalty and a single penalty point on his license as the stewards had ruled that he had "cut the chicane and rejoined track on the racing line in turn 17 and in the process collided with vehicle 7".

That was 0.833 seconds quicker than Fettel, who improved from 5th in the morning to 3rd, quickest in the 2nd session.

It's a very mixed-up starting grid, but the sight of Romain Grosjean's Haas leading the third row is an intriguing one.

Hamilton, who is searching for a fourth consecutive win in Formula One, said "definitely not" when asked if he expected to be enjoying such an advantage over his rivals after the opening two practice sessions. He now has six wins now from the last seven races.

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