Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 23° Track 27° Humidity 71% Wind 1.3 m/s
Grey and overcast for the start of qualifying, the track barely rubbered in and everyone suffering unexpected losses in traction. FP3 ended with Bottas and Raikkonen both stuffing it into the barriers, with Valterri glancing off the Armco out of Spoon and Kimi straight into the tyre wall on exit of Degner 2, which cost the Ferrari driver 5 grid spots as he mangled his gearbox as it required replacing, along with lots of other expensive bits. Bottas’ car, too, required extensive work to turn around including replacing the floor, but he had already collected his 5 spot penalty for a new gearbox which had been replaced earlier. At least Valterri could take comfort in having been fastest in the session, on the Soft tyre no less, followed by Hamilton also on the Softs, and Vettel on the SuperSofts. The red flags these incidents brought out spoiled more than a few fast laps, including that of Lewis Hamilton, who was out playing on his SuperSofts.
Also participating in penalty-palooza were Sainz and Palmer, dinged for 20 spots, and Alonso with a winning 35 grid spots for replacing every possible component he could thanks to a hydraulic fluid leak that destroyed his PU. Red Bull were fast in the corners but losing time on the straights(quel surprise) with Verstappen having ditched the T wing for FP3 and Ricciardo opting to keep it. Horner trotted out the usual niceties about race pace, but the fact remained that the “Malaysian Malaise” that afflicted the Mercedes flattered to deceive with regards to Red Bull’s overall pace.
Green Light!! Wehrlein, Ericsson and Hamilton were the first out, with Hamilton on the Soft tyre. Gasly and Vettel trailed out also on Softs as it was noted there was a fair amount of cement dust on the track to sop up an oil spill from a previous demonstration (telly fixed the blame squarely on an old Williams in a vehicle parade prior to the session).
Hamilton’s first fast lap was a marker laid at 1:29.507 with 15 minutes left to go. Vettel slotted in nicely behind, 0.265s behind and then, raising the blood pressure at Mercedes, Bottas on the Supers was off with a big sideways moment out of Degner 2. Into the gravel and somehow out without major damage and perhaps a certain loss of confidence. He was about 0.3s up in S1 up to that point.
Once Valterri caught his breath he was able to set a time just 0.007s off Lewis, who had upped his game in the meantime, nailing down a 1:29.325 still on his first set of Softs. Perez had slotted behind Vettel as the Red Bulls had finally joined the game. And it was Verstappen, minus the T-wing, to the top with a 1:29.181, rocking that time on a set of Supers. P5 for Ricciardo and P6 for Raikkonen set the sharp end of the grid as the clock ticked past the 6 minute mark.
At the other end of the field, Grosjean, Gasly, Stroll, Ericsson and Wehrlein had it all to do, with Magnussen on the bubble as the cars headed in to reset for their last runs at Q2. Stroll in particular had complained vociferously about being blocked by Perez on his fast lap and was going to be on a mission. Along the way, Raikkonen woke himself up enough to go P2 and with just under 3 minutes left, while a still circulating Hamilton once again took the top step, improving to 1:29.047 cars trickled back out onto the track.
Magnussen led the way followed by Grosjean and Gasly. Sainz Vandoorne and Massa were the next trio up. But then the fun was rapidly spoiled as Grosjean lost it in the esses, into the barrier and bringing out the red flag. Big mess and end of Q1, with Grosjean saying it was something on the car and Gene Haas’ face registering every single dollar sign that off had just cost him. Hopelessly turfed were the laps of Gasly, Stroll, Ericsson and Wehrlein and they, along with Grosjean in P16, were off in search of shiokara and redemption. The rest reset in the quest for glory in Q2.
Hamilton was first out of the gate in Q2, the lone runner at the start of the second session out on the Supers, with Raikkonen following him out about 20 seconds back, Kimi, rather astonishingly, on the Soft tyre as the clock ticked over the 14 minute mark. Or rather not, as with a 5 spot penalty the harder tyre and going long was sensible strategy
No surprise, Hamilton crushed S1 purple, with Kimi running almost 0.6s back. Lewis continued his torrid pace through S2 and S3, going 1:27.819 a new track record. Raikkonen was far off with a 1:29.079, but 0.3s up on the time the team asked him to run.
Vettel on the Supers could do no better than 1:28.482, still good for P2 but far off the time of Hamilton. Bottas took P3 ahead of Verstappen, but nearly 0.7s adrift of his teammate in P1, not entirely surprising when you consider he was running the Soft tyre, mirroring Raikkonen’s strategy as he sported a similar penalty. Ricciardo on the Supers, took P5 ahead of Raikkonen.
Ocon led the best of the rest, trailed by Perez. Massa and Vandoorne rounded out the top 10. As the cars reset during the interval, it was Alonso, Hulkenberg, Palmer, Magnussen and Sainz with it all to do. As they headed out for their last tilt at glory, it was Ocon and Hulkenberg leading the way, followed by Alonso , Vangoorne, Magnussen and Sainz. Perez and Palmer trailed further behind but fascinatingly, all the top runners save the Red Bulls and Raikkonen were out to set times as well.
Alonso to P10, ahead of Vandoorne, and that was the end of the improvement at the back of the field. No improvement at the top of the field, but it looked that both Hamilton and Bottas boxed without setting a time. Hamilton was chunking up purples along the way, but the end result was the same position wise, with Bottas and Raikkonen set to go long on the Soft tyre.
Vandoorne, Hulkenberg, Magnussen, Palmer and Sainz were done like a dinner, off in search of sake as the rest turned it around to attempt to claim the all palmares in Q3.
Bottas led the way into Q3, followed by Hamilton and Raikkonen. Ocon brought up the rear of the quartet and then there was a nice gap to Versppen, Perez and Ricciardo. Vettel tagged onto the end of that train on his outlap, with Massa swinging off a little back.
Bottas was first across the line, but it was Lewis setting the board alight in purple, owning every sector in turn and quickly shuffling his teammate from P1 to P2 with a 1:27.345, nearly 0.7s up. Verstappen went P3 until Vettel came through, snicking a tenth from Bottas and taking P2, dispatching the Dutchman to P4. Ricciardo took advantage of a big wobble that young Max had, jumping him for P4 when he finally hit the line. Ocon was the best of the rest in P6, as Raikkonen had backed ot of his first go and was lingering in P9, with only Alonso for company as he kept his powder dry for the end of the session.
Bottas led the way yet again for the last chance at glory. But again the Finn was overshadowed by his teammate, Lewis setting S1 purple again. But it was up to P2 for Valterri and this time, it was Vettel unable to answer, a full tenth behind. Raikkonen was even worse, P6, which was not going to do him any favours with a 5 spot grid penalty coming. Though with a hastily reconstructed car, perhaps not so surprising. Ricciardo again outpointed his teammate, taking P4, T-wing and all, ahead of Max in P5. Ocon continued to be the best of the rest, with Perez, Massa and Alonso finishing out the top 10.
Can it be, first pole for Hamilton at Suzuka, so congratulations due there, never mind the ruthless crushing of the former track record, by well over a second. 5 spot for Bottas means P2 start for Vettel and he and Raikkonen will certainly motivate the early action as they move forward through the field. Red Bull looks set to be playing in their own sandbox, faster than everyone else but slower than the top 3. With luck, Horner’s race pace refrain will have a bit of meat to it and Red Bull will be able to mix it with the leaders.
Also on offer for tomorrow is the tidbit that by the time they get to Turn 7, Mercedes have maxed out their tyre temps and need to run conservatively for the next part of the lap to keep from overheating them. Not much to hang your hat on, but Ferrari will definitely take whatever they can get. Force India looked mighty, though not yet troubling Red Bull, which was their target heading in. The battle between Perez and Ocon should be fun, especially into Turn 1, with Massa suddenly having a good result now that his potential successors are being regularly discussed in the media.
Temps could play a role, too, as though it was cool today which clearly favored Mercedes, the race is forecast to be warmer which might make their race day a bit more challenging. A development all true race fans should welcome.
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