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By Alan Davies, Formula One correspondent
Saturday, October 6, 2012
FORMULA 1 driver Lewis Hamilton faces a tough battle to secure a podium finish from the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix after only qualifying ninth at Suzuka.
* Age: 27 (January 7, 1985)
* GPs: 104
* Wins: 20
* Poles: 24
* Fasest Laps: 11
* 2012 points: 142 (4th)
The 27-year-old Vodafone McLaren Mercedes ace from Hertfordshire will start on the fifth row at the Suzuka Circuit.
Having impressed in practice on Friday, the 2008 F1 world champion struggled with the set-up of his McLaren today (Saturday).
He qualified ninth overall with a time of 1m 32.327s as Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel claimed his fourth successive pole position in Japan.
By his own admission, it was a disappointing day behind the wheel.
* Race distance: 53 laps (191.054 miles/307.471km)
* Start time* 15.00 (local)/07:00 BST
* Circuit length: 3.608 miles/5.807km
* 2011 winner: Jenson Button (McLarens) 53 laps in 1hr 30m 53.427s (202.972km/h)
* 2011 pole: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 1m30.466s (231.083km/h)
* Lap record: Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren MP4-20) 1m 31.540s (228.372km/h)
Hamilton said: “Today’s qualifying session was one of the most disappointing of my year.
“To be honest, I went the wrong way with the set-up and ended up with too much understeer.
“Until quali, the car had felt great all weekend, but I just couldn’t make it turn this afternoon, and as a result I just couldn’t extract the best from it.”
McLaren’s long pace run was decent on Friday. Stevenage-born Hamilton added: “So you never know what’s going to happen in tomorrow’s race.
“It’s going to be a struggle, but I’ll be pushing my hardest with the set-up I’ve got, and I hope that, through good tyre management, I’ll be able to overtake some of the cars in front of me.
“I’ll be trying to get as many points as I can tomorrow.”
McLaren teammate Jenson Button qualified third behind the Red Bulls of Vettel and Mark Webber, but will start eighth owing to five-place gearbox penalty.
Nevertheless, he still hasn’t given up hope of challenging for a podium – and even taking the chequered flag.
Button said: “I love racing around here. And because everyone’s strategy could be up in the air tomorrow – because there’s been quite a lot of tyre graining and blistering – things could still be a bit unpredictable.
“The championship is a long-shot for me, I know that, but I’d love to do well in front of the Japanese crowd; I’ll be going for the win.”
McLaren principal Martin Whitmarsh admitted the team had expected better than eighth and ninth on the grid.
He said: “Clearly, having been quick here yesterday [Friday], we’re disappointed to have put up a comparatively unexciting performance in Q3 this afternoon.
“Jenson drove a good lap to be best of the rest behind the Red Bulls, but will nonetheless start tomorrow’s race from P8, much farther back than his P3 qualifying pace would normally yield, having arrived here at Suzuka saddled with a five-place grid penalty, a result of a gearbox failure in Singapore.
“That said, he’s a bit of a Suzuka ace, as we’ve seen as recently as last year, when he won the race with a fine drive from the front row, clocking fastest lap en route. So he’ll be one to watch tomorrow, for sure.
“For Lewis, who was consistently quick yesterday, Q3 was perhaps more disappointing still – largely because, when he was on his quickest lap, waved yellow flags forced him to back off through the long Spoon corner, costing him quite a lot of time and ruining his lap as a result.
“Tomorrow, though, is another day – and the Japanese Grand Prix will be as hard as all Japanese Grands Prix at Suzuka tend to be, run as they are on such a magnificently challenging racetrack.
“Moreover, both Jenson and Lewis will be doing their best to make rapid progress, and to put on a decent show for the ever-enthusiastic Japanese spectators and the tens of millions of TV viewers alike.”
The 2012 Grand Prix of Japan starts at 7am on Sunday.