F1 2011 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying: Hamilton battles for grid position

FORMULA 1 driver Lewis Hamilton battles for pole position in qualifying for the 2011 Japanese Grand Prix at the Suzuka circuit tomorrow (Saturday) morning.

The Herts-born F1 racer was only eighth fastest in second practice in Japan today (Friday) as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team-mate Jenson Button set the early pace.

However, Hamilton was second quickest in P1 and will be looking for a good grid position when the one-hour qualifying period starts at 6am British Summer Time.

Button clocked 1m 33.634s in first practice at the challenging Suzuka circuit and 1m 31.901s in the second session, while Hamilton’s best lap times on a fine day were 1m 33.725s and 1m 33.245s respectively.

As always, Red Bull also looked strong, with F1 world champion-elect Sebastian Vettel – winner in Japan last year – fractionally slower than McLaren’s fastest driver.

Hamilton, though, thinks the gap between the two teams isn’t as great on race day.

“Looking at the times, I think Red Bull typically carries less fuel than us during Friday’s long-run practices – that’s often been the case throughout the year – and we’re often closer in the races,” said the 2008 F1 world champion from Hertfordshire.

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“I think our long-run pace, particularly on Jenson’s car, looks good: I think we’ve got a good chance of being very competitive.

“Also, our pace over a single lap also looks very good.”

Today’s practice pace-setter Button added: “It’s always fun driving around Suzuka, particularly when you have a good car beneath you.

“This is an amazing circuit – the first sector is phenomenal; there is no rest, I don’t think you breathe through that whole sector.

“It’s all about getting it together and finding a balance that lets you flow through there.

“And the car feels good around here. I don’t really know what to take from today in terms of where we stand, but the car feels pretty good.

“We tried a couple of different fuel-loads: on heavier fuel, the car feels okay through the high-speed changes of direction, although there are still some areas to improve – particularly in the long runs.

“The important thing for us is to get the car sorted and ready to challenge for victory.”

Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team principal Martin Whitmarsh was buoyed by today’s performance.

He said: “It’s always encouraging to end the day fastest, and Jenson really underlined our pace by heading up both of today’s free practice sessions.

“We’ve made a number of small changes to the cars for Japan and we’re encouraged by the results – not just for this weekend, but as the foundation for development at future races.”

Whitmarsh felt Hamilton was unlucky not to clock a faster time in second practice.

He said: “Lewis wasn’t able to capitalise on the softer rubber when his tyres were at their optimum due to several yellow-flag sectors during P2, but, nevertheless, he’s still encouraged by the pace of the car over both a single flying-lap and a long-run.

“It’s always hard to make accurate assessments of other teams’ pace on higher fuel-loads, but we’ve been very focused on our own programme and feel comfortable with our pace given the fuel we were carrying.

“Obviously, that belief will be borne out tomorrow in qualifying and we hope that our predictions prove to be accurate.”

In fact, tyre-wear could prove to be the crucial factor in Sunday’s race, as Hamilton acknowledged.

He said: “Actually, I think looking after the tyres during the race will be the biggest challenge, because degradation could be a slight issue for the teams.”

Hamilton added: “Suzuka is a fantastic track to drive, especially when the weather’s as beautiful as today.”

The opening day of the 2011 Japanese GP weekend might have been fine but that wasn’t the case 12 months ago when qualifying at Suzuka on the Saturday was abandoned because of monsoon-like conditions.

After a near-washout, qualifying was shifted to the morning of the Grand Prix of Japan, with Vettel claiming pole position.

Mark Webber was second to complete a Red Bull lock-out of the front row.

Hamilton was the Red Bull pair’s nearest challenger on the track, but took a five-place grid penalty after a gearbox change following the previous month’s Singapore Grand Prix.

Starting from eighth, Hamilton climbed into fourth place but suffered further gearbox trouble in the closing stages of the race and was overtaken by Button.

Qualifying tomorrow takes place from 6am to 7am.

The 2011 Japanese GP starts at 7am on Sunday.

* Videos courtesy of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.

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