‘Never in a million years’ – Hamilton grabs 80th pole as Vettel flounders

Lewis Hamilton has earned his 80th career pole position. (AFP pic)

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

Hamilton, who leads Vettel by 50 points with five races left this season, led a Mercedes front-row lockout and will start as the hot favourite to tighten his stranglehold on the Formula One championship in Sunday’s race at Suzuka.

The Briton’s record-extending 80th career pole never looked in doubt after his rampant form in completing a clean sweep of free practice earlier in the day.

“I can’t believe I have 80 poles,” said Hamilton, who has won five of the last six races.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d get 80. When it comes to being under pressure and making the right decisions, that’s why we are the best team in the world.”

Ferrari’s decision to begin the top-10 shootout on intermediate tyres instead of super-softs backfired spectacularly as the rain they expected held off just long enough for Hamilton to set a fastest lap of one minute, 27.76 seconds – 0.3 seconds quicker than teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Vettel skidded off twice in his desperation to set a time and his starting position will be his lowest of a season which began so brightly but looks like ending in bitter disappointment.

“This is not the position we deserve to be in,” insisted the German, who had barely left the garage before informing Ferrari of their mistake over team radio.

“I think we have better pace than ninth so I’m not too worried.”

As Vettel’s thin hopes of pipping Hamilton to a fifth world championship faded still further, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who qualified third, declared the title race over.

Asked if he would look to have a say in the battle for the Formula One crown, Verstappen smiled: “Is it even a battle anymore, I don’t know!”

Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen qualified alongside the Dutchman on the second row.

Romain Grosjean steered his Haas to fifth ahead of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly, who secured sixth and seventh on the grid for Toro Rosso at the home of the team’s engine suppliers Honda.

The Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez qualified above and below Vettel respectively to complete the top 10.

Hamilton controversially took his eighth chequered flag of the season at Sochi last weekend after Mercedes ordered Bottas to give up the lead.

But he has dominated in Suzuka and a fifth victory in Japan would put him on course to clinch the title with races to spare.