Hamilton seizes on Vettel blunder
Pole-sitting Briton claims Ferrari are feeling pressure Title rival runs off circuit after his team’s tyre error
Lewis Hamilton said he believed that Ferrari were cracking under the pressure of the championship fight after he claimed pole position for this morning’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Vettel, who went in to the race 50 points behind Hamilton, lined up only ninth after an embarrassing tyre blunder by Ferrari cost the German dearly in qualifying.
It did not help that Vettel, too, was culpable of another error as, in attempting to make amends for his team’s mistake, he ran off the circuit at Spoon, and finished 4.4 seconds down. His Ferrari team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, qualified fourth.
Despite only a smattering of raindrops in the moments before the shoot-out for pole, Ferrari elected to put Vettel on wet tyres. Hamilton headed out on the slick rubber.
While the Englishman immediately posted a lap good enough for pole, Vettel had to dash back to the pits for a change of tyres. By the time he was ready to set his best effort, a shower left him badly exposed.
The track became increasingly damp, and there would be no challenge to Hamilton, who went into today’s race in a strong position to extend his title lead and further tighten his grip on a fifth championship.
“Every team has smart people, but ultimately when it comes to being under pressure and making the right decisions and the right calls that is why we are the best in the world,” said Hamilton after clinching the 80th pole position of his record-breaking career.
“It adds to the momentum of this championship. It is always difficult to make the right call, but that is another real big difference that we as a team have made this year.
“The Ferrari cars pulled out of the garage on the intermediate tyres, and I honestly didn’t think it was the right decision.”
Hamilton was not on his own in that view. Speaking on the radio before he had even left the pits, Vettel told his team that they had messed up. But it was too late.
Vettel’s ensuing on-track mistake also supports one paddock theory that his own error-prone campaign has been sparked by trying to manage his hapless Italian team from inside the Ferrari cockpit.
Last night, the 31-year-old German towed the party line, but he will have known that this latest setback could have been the final nail in his championship coffin.
“We expected more rain, and it didn’t come straightaway so it was the wrong decision,” he said. “I am not blaming anybody. It doesn’t matter who made the call. Why does it matter? It was our call. If it starts to rain five or six minutes earlier then we performed a miracle because we are the only clever ones. If it turns out the way it did then we are stupid. I defend the decision.”
The best Vettel could realistically have hoped for from the race in Japan was fourth. Hamilton went in to the race knowing that victory would move him 63 points clear with 100 still to race for.
“It has been an incredible year, but never in a million years did I think I would get to 80,” said Hamilton, who is now 12 poles ahead of any other driver in the sport’s history.
“Eighty is not the end but it is a milestone I am very proud of. It makes me think of all the great years that I have had, and a few of those were at McLaren when we didn’t always have a championship-winning car.”
On the evidence of their performance here, McLaren have the slowest car.
Thirty years ago, Ayrton Senna led Alain Prost home as the Brazilian sealed the world championship in Japan and McLaren recorded yet another onetwo finish of a dominant year.
Fast-forward three decades, and these are bleak, bleak times indeed for Britain’s most successful Formula One team.
Yesterday, Fernando Alonso, who is quitting the team and the sport at the end of the year, and Stoffel Vandoorne occupied the 18th and 19th slots respectively on the grid.
Fans’ favourite: Spectators show their support for drivers’ championship leader Lewis Hamilton as he races to pole position during a rain-hit qualifying session at Suzuka