Saturday, 11 October 2008

Japanese Grand Prix: Lewis Steals Pole with Lap of his Life

A brilliant last ditch lap from Lewis Hamilton put the McLaren driver in pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, and pole position for the World Driver's Championship. Crucially, Ferrari's Felipe Massa, who looked strng throughout the early stages of qualifying, fell at the final hurdle and could only manage a highly disappointing fifth place. His team mate Raikkonen made a much better fist of things to take second place, and his job will be to put the heat on Hamilton throughout tomorrow's race and to try and take the 10 points away from him. Kovalainen is third place, and on form Fernando Alonso is fourth.

The first session saw Toyota's Timo Glock showing the Japanese fans that his great showing in yesterday's practice session was no fluke, as he went fastest of all with one of the final laps of the session. It was a great lap which knocked the two title protagonists down to second and third. Things were very close at the bottom of the time sheet where things mattered most. There were no surprises as both Force India and Honda cars dropped out, but in the final shake up it was BMW's Nick Heidfeld who joined them on the sidelines for the rest of the session. Thankfully for him his contract for next season was signed up just this week, meaning his job is safe despite yet another dismal qualifying performance.

The second session saw Felipe Massa come to life with an excellent lap early on, beating Lewis Hamilton by two tenths of a second. Both drivers were confident they'd make it through so didn't bother coming out for a second run. In the danger zone there was disappointment for Williams and home favourite Kazuki Nakajima. The Williams cars ended up fourteenth and fifteenth, last in the session, and dropped out, although Nakajima will take some heart from beating Rosberg in qualifying for one of the first times this year. Both Red Bull cars also had a bit of a nightmare by dropping out while their sister team Toro Rosso saw both their drivers make it through. Coulthard got the better of Webber for just the second time this year, while Nelson Piquet was sandwiched between the pair of them in twelfth place.

In the final session the first marker set down was from Timo Glock, but his time was immediately bettered by Kimi Raikkonen as the first of the big guns to set a time. It was an excellent lap from the Finn, proved by the fact that Massa and Hamilton could barely get within two tenths of him. Come the second round of hotlaps Raikkonen was again the first man out, and he improved upon his first time with a blistering time of 1:18.6. After such a poor run of form, suddenly Raikkonen was looking like the World Champion he is supposed to be. Massa improved, but not significantly and would start behind Kimi no matter what.

At that point Ferrari had a provisional front row lock-out, and the pressure was most definitely on for Lewis Hamilton. And boy did he deliver when it mattered! He set fastest split times in all three sectors on his way to pole position by well over two tenths. Obviously we still have to see how things will pan out with regards to fuel loads, but if he is carrying a "sensible fuel load" as Ron Dennis asserts, then it was certainly one of the greatest laps of his young career. That wasn't the end of the drama however, as things were about to get much worse for Ferrari and Massa. Heikki Kovalainen managed to get ahead of Massa, and also Hamilton's former bitter adversary did the Brit a massive favour by getting up into fourth place, thus relegating Massa to the third row of the grid.

It's going to be a fascinating first stint tomorrow, one which could possibly decide the title. The onus is on Raikkonen to try and get himself ahead or at least keep the pressure on Hamilton. However, he will also have compatriot Kovalainen breathing down his neck. Any prolonged battle between the Finns could leave Hamilton free to cruise away to victory. And all the while Felipe Massa will be having to battle his way past Alonso, one of the sport's toughest competitors, and Kovalainen as quick as possible. We know Massa has great ability when he is out in front and things are going his way, but there are still large question marks over his ability when his back is against the wall and things are going against him. How he reacts to today's disappointment in the race tomorrow may well be a defining moment in his career.

If Hamilton is able to extend his lead to over 10 points with two races remaining, he will have one hand on the championship trophy. Massa needs the race of his life tomorrow to keep his hopes alive.

Qualifying Result

01 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:18.404
02 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:18.644
03 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:18.821
04 F. Alonso Renault 1:18.852
05 F. Massa Ferrari 1:18.874
06 R. Kubica BMW 1:18.979
07 J. Trulli Toyota 1:19.026
08 T. Glock Toyota 1:19.118
09 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:19.638
10 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:20.167
11 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:18.187
12 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:18.274
13 M. Webber Red Bull 1:18.354
14 K. Nakajima Williams 1:18.594
15 N. Rosberg Williams 1:18.672
16 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:18.835
17 R. Barrichello Honda 1:18.882
18 J. Button Honda 1:19.100
19 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:19.163
20 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:19.910

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