SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Championship leader Nico Rosberg seized pole position for the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix on Saturday, the German marginally fending off Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton in a close-run qualifying session.
Rosberg has led every session of the race weekend and confirmed his superiority around the Suzuka Circuit with a fastest lap of one minute, 30.647 seconds, just 0.013 seconds quicker than Hamilton on an overcast afternoon.
“I’m happy with the result in the end,” Rosberg told reporters. “I was going well the whole weekend and had a good balance in the car, feeling good, feeling comfortable so that’s what allows me to put in a lap like that in the end.”
Rosberg’s 30th pole position of his career was the German’s third in a row at Suzuka as Mercedes, who can wrap up a third successive constructors’ title on Sunday, claimed first place on the grid for the 52nd time in the last 54 races.
Starting from the front also gives Rosberg a golden opportunity to extend his 23-point lead over defending champion Hamilton with four rounds remaining after Japan.
The Briton had been poised to vault back into the overall lead at the last race in Malaysia until he was forced out with an engine failure while on his way to a landmark 50th win just 16 laps from the finish.
Hamilton tends to save his best for the third qualifying session and the triple world champion appeared on course to snatch pole away from the German after going faster on the pair’s first attempts in the final 12-minute shootout.
Rosberg was not to be denied, however, and did just enough on his final flying lap to deny the Briton a maiden Suzuka pole.
“It’s been a weekend of a lot of work.. so considering that to be that close, I was really happy with it,” said Hamilton, who won the race from second on the grid in the last two years and can draw encouragement from that.
“I did as well as I could. History has shown that you don’t have to be on pole to get the win.”
Kimi Raikkonen was third for Ferrari on what has so far been a strong weekend for the Italian squad, one place ahead of team mate Sebastian Vettel, who will drop three spot as punishment for shoving Rosberg into a spin at the start in Malaysia.
Red Bull, who arrived on a high after inheriting a first one-two finish since the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix in Malaysia, were unable to match the qualifying pace of their German and Italian rivals.
Max Verstappen, second in Malaysia, was fifth ahead of Sepang race-winner Daniel Ricciardo.
Elsewhere, McLaren endured a disappointing day at what is a considered a home event for engine-suppliers Honda with Jenson Button not even making it through the opening 18-minute qualifying session after setting the 17th-fastest time.
Double world champion team-mate Fernando Alonso fared marginally better after the Spaniard was eliminated in the second phase and will start 15th.
Editing by John O'Brien