SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Formula One leader Lewis Hamilton smashed the Suzuka track record to seize a dominant Japanese Grand Prix pole position on Saturday with Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel lining up alongside on the front row.
The Mercedes driver produced a stunning fastest lap of one minute and 27.319 seconds for his first pole at the 5.8km track and 71st of his career.
The time shattered seven times world champion Michael Schumacher’s previous outright best at the circuit by 1.6 seconds.
“Incredible,” said the Briton, in post-qualifying interviews conducted by his former McLaren team mate Jenson Button in front of the crowd. “It’s been a really good day and every lap was fantastic.
“It’s my first time. I’m running out of opportunities to get this pole, so I was like ‘I’ve got to make sure I make it stick today’,” added the Briton, who was on pole in Japan at Fuji in 2007 for McLaren.
His team mate Valtteri Bottas was second quickest, 0.332 seconds adrift but drops five places down the grid due to an unscheduled gearbox change.
The penalty will elevate Vettel to the front row of the grid, putting the two title contenders side by side for Sunday’s heavyweight battle between multiple champions.
Hamilton, who leads the German by 34 points with just five races to go, brushed aside a suggestion about how aggressive Vettel might be into the first corner.
“I don’t know. He won’t be any more aggressive than I am,” said the triple champion.
“I’ve got eight meters. I need to make sure I keep the eight meters that I have and get a good start. Starts have generally been strong this year.”
Vettel, a four times world champion, needs a big result this weekend to close the gap after suffering successive setbacks to his bid for a fifth title.
“I’m reasonably happy,” he said.
“I tried everything on the last run, I knew I had to take a bit more risk...I would have loved to have been a bit quicker but it’s quite amazing with the new cars around here. I love the track.”
Saturday was Hamilton’s 10th pole of the season and marked a convincing return to the top of the timesheets for Mercedes after the champions struggled for pace at the last two races in Singapore and Malaysia.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo set the fourth-fastest time ahead of Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen, winner in Malaysia last weekend.
The pair will fill the second row but were about a second off Hamilton’s pace.
Kimi Raikkonen, who will also drop five places on the grid for an unscheduled gearbox change after a crash in Saturday morning’s final practice session, set the sixth fastest time.
Esteban Ocon was seventh-quickest for Force India ahead of Mexican team-mate Sergio Perez, Williams Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, who completed the top 10 for McLaren.
The Spaniard, though, went into qualifying with a 35-place grid penalty after his team installed a fresh Honda power unit in his car overnight, exceeding his permitted allocation for the season.
He was one of five drivers to have gone into qualifying carrying grid penalties, the others being Renault’s Jolyon Palmer and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz.
Frenchman Romain Grosjean crashed his Haas at the twisty ‘Esses’ section at the start of the lap, bringing out the red flags with a little over a minute to go in the session’s opening phase.
Reporting by Abhishek Takle in Suzuka; Editing by John O'Brien/Alan Baldwin