Lewis Hamilton secured his 80th career pole position in a rain-affected qualifying as his title rival Sebastian Vettel slumped to ninth at Suzuka.
Mercedes read the weather pattern perfectly as Hamilton’s first Q3 run was enough to achieve top spot before weather conditions deteriorated within the session.
Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas followed behind the Brit to ensure the Silver Arrows had their fifth ever qualifying one-two in Suzuka.
The result means Championship leader Hamilton has now headed all but one of every session so far this weekend, as the World Champion goes from strength to strength at one of his more favoured circuits.
But for Mercedes’ joy came Ferrari’s pain, as Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were significantly hindered by their team’s cautious approach and whilst Raikkonen will start fourth, Vettel will begin the race on the 5th row of the grid.
The Ferrari duo were sent out on intermediate tyres in conditions where slick compounds were peaking, and as a result both Vettel and Raikkonen had incidents where they were unable to keep the car on the track.
Vettel’s lowest starting position
Ferrari’s strategy call means Vettel will be starting in his lowest qualifying position so far this season at a time when the German was in desperate need of achieving some form of advantage over title-rival Hamilton.
In a season that promised so much, Ferrari’s form continues to fall into a disastrous decline as Mercedes take full advantage.
Vettel and Raikkonen were the only drivers to depart their garage with intermediate tyres in Q3, and Ferrari were quick to admit their mistakes over team radio before Vettel made a mistake of his own at Spoon Curve.
The error meant Vettel could only achieve ninth, with all other competitors posting their quickest times with their first run in Q3.
Honda rise as McLaren hit a new low
Brendon Hartley recorded his best qualifying position of the season as he and Toro Rosso team-mate Pierre Gasly took sixth and seventh on the grid.
It’s the first time in ten races that Australian Hartley has out-qualified the Red Bull bound Gasly, and the achievement also marks the first time in 12 years that two Honda-powered cars had made Q3.
Prior to the weekend, Honda had promised a major upturn in performance as they developed considerable upgrades for their home Grand Prix.
And their developments were rewarded as the pair of Hartley and Gasly were boosted with Honda’s new ‘spec three’ engine.
However, Honda’s climb highlights McLaren’s fall and the Woking-based team will be left feeling a little bitter, with the team slumping out of the first qualifying session as indisputably the slowest car on track.
Only a high-speed crash from Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson prevented the McLaren duo of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne from locking out the back row, and Alonso was powerless this time to perform his usual over-achieving escapades.
With the Spaniard making his departure in the winter, the outcome of Suzuka could paint a bleak future for a team that were once the pinnacle of success in Formula One.
Ricciardo power shortage
Yet again, Renault’s insufficiencies have come back to haunt Daniel Ricciardo as the Australian was plagued with yet another engine issue that halted his charge in Q2. Which makes it quite bewildering as to why he opted to sign up for another three years of Renault support?
Prior to 2018, Ricciardo had only missed Q3 three times as a Red Bull driver. Fast forward to this season, and the ‘Honey Badger’ has missed out the top ten in five of the last seven races, and his misery has been compiled by the fact that he has been out-qualified by team-mate Max Verstappen in the past 11 events.
Verstappen meanwhile took full advantage of Ferrari’s plight to take 3rd on the grid, with the Dutch talent maintaining his consistent form to keep Mercedes maintaining a sharp eye to their rear-view mirrors.