Lewis Hamilton will have to force his way past Nico Rosberg in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix with Mercedes hitting back quickly from last week’s Singapore flop.
Rosberg stormed to pole in qualifying on Saturday while world champion Hamilton will start an emotional Suzuka race alongside him as the Silver Arrows put Ferrari in their place.
With Formula One in a sombre mood on its return to Japan after Frenchman Jules Bianchi’s fatal crash last year, there was a stark reminder of the inherent risks drivers take when Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat destroyed his car in a spectacular qualifying crash.
However, an eighth victory of the year for Hamilton would put the Briton tantalisingly close to a third world title.
He boasts a 41-point lead over Rosberg in the championship standings with six races left and has added incentive after suffering his first retirement of the season in Singapore, where Sebastian Vettel produced a shock win for Ferrari.
Hamilton won in the wet at Suzuka last year, his joy extinguished after details of Bianchi’s crash filtered through to the paddock. But Rosberg, who also began on pole last year, has looked the sharper of the two this week.
“It’s been a bad track for me,” said Hamilton after being pipped to his 12th pole position of 2015.
“I don’t know why. I love the circuit but I’ve never felt comfortable here. I think it’s me. It’s just not a track I feel comfortable on – it’s a weird sensation.”
Vettel qualified on the second row behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas, whose team mate Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari occupy the third row.
Mercedes were rocked by a mysterious loss of pace in Singapore, shocking the Formula One paddock and even sparking wild conspiracy theories about tyre tampering.
But Vettel played down Ferrari’s chances of inflicting another upset at Suzuka, which suits the power of the Mercedes far more than Singapore’s street circuit.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo showed decent pace in qualifying seventh with Frenchman Romain Grosjean alongside him on row four in what could be his last race for the troubled Lotus team before announcing he will join new American-owned team Haas for 2016.