Nico Rosberg will move a step closer to usurping Lewis Hamilton as Formula One world champion if the German converts pole position into a first victory in Japan on Sunday.
Rosberg, who has a 23-point lead over Hamilton in the title standings with five races to go, pipped his British foe by just 0.013sec as the two Mercedes rivals went toe to toe in Saturday’s qualifying.
Hamilton’s fragile state of mind after his heartbreak in Malaysia last weekend was encapsulated when he snubbed journalists over what he called “disrespectful” coverage earlier this week.
The German had been chipping away at Hamilton’s veneer of invincibility by winning three successive races before Malaysia, where a battling third place for Rosberg added insult to injury for the Briton who had to retire with an engine blaze.
But Hamilton’s meltdown after qualifying will be music to Rosberg’s ears as he chases a maiden win in Japan — one which would leave Hamilton’s hopes of retaining the F1 title hanging by a thread.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen starts third in Sunday’s race, alongside Dutch teenager Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.
After securing his eighth pole of the year — the same number as Hamilton — Rosberg refused to get carried away, saying: “It’s been a great weekend but I know I have a lot of work to do to complete the job.”
Rosberg claimed pole at Suzuka for the third year running, but will be acutely aware that on neither previous occasion did it lead to victory in the race.
Hamilton came roaring back both times to win the Japanese race on his way to lifting the title.
– Rush of blood –
But Rosberg is in the form of his life and barring a first-corner error or collision, the German will be favourite to turn the screw on Hamilton.
A defiant Hamilton insisted he could still halt Rosberg’s momentum by winning Sunday’s race, having done exactly that in Japan the past two years.
But he appears to have lost the plot since his Malaysian disaster, blaming his engine blow-out on a team conspiracy, and a rush of blood going into turn one could spell trouble for Mercedes.
Hamilton backed away from remarks hinting at sabotage but caused another storm by playing with his mobile phone throughout Thursday’s FIA press conference.
And after he was widely criticised for his behaviour, he reacted snootily.
“I don’t plan on sitting here many more times at these kind of (media) things,” he said.
Ferrari and Red Bull will look to pounce if Mercedes suffer more technical trouble.
Sebastian Vettel set the fourth-fastest qualifying time for Ferrari but a three-place grid penalty for smashing into Rosberg in Malaysia means he starts seventh.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who inherited victory in Sepang after Hamilton’s misfortune, lines up fifth ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez.
“I’m doing pretty good in the corners and just bleeding on the straights,” said the Australian, complaining of low power.
McLaren will have a job on their hands to score points in engine supplier Honda’s home race, meanwhile, with Fernando Alonso starting on row eight and Jenson Button a further row back.
© 2016 AFP