SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel sprang a Suzuka surprise on Sunday, pipping younger team mate Charles Leclerc to pole position as Ferrari locked out the front row in qualifying for the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix.
The German, outqualified by Leclerc for the last nine races, conjured up old magic and lit up the timing screens with a record lap of one minute, 27.064 seconds.
Leclerc, on pole for the last four races in a row, didn’t have an answer and ended up 0.189 seconds adrift, ahead of Mercedes pair Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton who are set to start from the second row of the grid.
“We didn’t expect to have a front row,” said Vettel whose first effort in the final phase of qualifying would have also been good enough for pole.
“What we had was unbelievable, the car felt light and there was a headwind which is what you want,” added the 34-year-old, who has won four times at Suzuka.
The pole was the 57th of Vettel’s career and only second this year.
It was also the fifth in a row for Ferrari, who have started every race since Formula One’s summer break from the front.
Their first pole at Suzuka since 2006, when Felipe Massa led Michael Schumacher in a front-row lockout, also sets them up to score their first victory at the Japanese track since Michael Schumacher’s triumph in 2004.
Ferrari’s qualifying one-two came out of the blue after Mercedes, aided by minor upgrades introduced this weekend, appeared to have edged clear of their Italian rivals after suffering three defeats from the last four races.
Bottas, who trails Hamilton by 73 points in the overall standings with five races to go, had set the pace in Friday’s practice sessions.
The Finn had looked on course to take Mercedes’ sixth consecutive Suzuka pole after going fastest in the second phase of the hour-long session but in the end the silver cars didn’t appear to have the speed.
Still, Bottas and Hamilton, who like Vettel has won at Suzuka four times, are hoping their long run pace can help them leapfrog their rivals later on Sunday.
“Ferrari I think have a faster car but I think we’ve got a solid car,” said Hamilton.
“I think we’re going to hopefully give them a race, a run for their money, but they’re very quick on the straights as I said.”
Max Verstappen will start fifth for Red Bull ahead of team mate Alexander Albon with the Red Bull drivers starting engine supplier Honda’s home race from the third row of the grid.
The two team mates set identical times down to the last thousandth of a second.
McLaren team mates Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris were seventh and eighth.
Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Haas driver Romain Grosjean rounded out the top 10.
Drivers and teams face a quick turnaround to get ready for the race, set to start as planned at 2.10 pm local time (0510 GMT), after qualifying was postponed to Sunday morning due to the approach of Typhoon Hagibis.
While Sunday dawned bright and sunny drivers had to contend with strong gusts of wind.
Robert Kubica and Kevin Magnussen lost control of their cars and slammed into the barriers, forcing the session to be halted twice.
Kubica will start from the pitlane in his Williams. Magnussen will line up at the back of the grid in his Haas.
Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Amlan Chakraborty