Formula 1 World Championship leader Lewis Hamilton did his utmost to break Ferrari's spirit by turning what had looked like being a scarlet benefit in qualifying for this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix into pole position for McLaren-Mercedes - with title rival Felipe Massa able to do no better than fifth.

With the sun trying to break through the clouds above Fuji Speedway, Renault's Nelsinho Piquet and home hero Kazuki Nakajima were the first men to tip-toe gently out onto the wet-but-drying circuit on slick tyres at the beginning of Q1. The latter, however, immediately demonstrated just how tricky the track surface still was following the overnight and morning rain, by missing his braking point into turn one and slotting in behind his fellow rookie on the timesheets.

Toyota star Timo Glock - who had paced Friday's running but blotted his copybook somewhat by spinning on an 'out' lap in FP3 - displaced Nakajima to move into second, with the sister Williams of Nico Rosberg rapidly doing likewise to go third, and the second TF108 of Jarno Trulli slotting into fourth.

The Italian would, however, steal the top spot away from Piquet with his second lap, as Massa became the first 'big name' to show his hand, and the Brazilian straightaway took nearly three tenths of a second off new quickest man Glock's best marker.

Hamilton was next to take to the fray, the McLaren-Mercedes ace throwing the gauntlet well-and-truly down to Massa by lopping almost a full half a second off the Ferrari man's effort, and out-pacing team-mate Heikki Kovalainen to the tune of a gaping eight tenths.

Kimi Raikkonen in the second scarlet machine was also some way off the leading pace at almost six tenths adrift of Hamilton in third, before being displaced by compatriot Kovalainen just moments later.

The two BMW-Saubers and the Renault of surprise Singapore Grand Prix winner Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, were continuing to play 'chicken' with the track conditions as they remained in the pit-lane whilst the clock ticked down. Robert Kubica - who had gone fastest on a drying line right at the end of FP3 in the morning - was the first of them to set a representative lap time, moving into sixth, before close friend Alonso bumped him down a spot by stealing the position for himself shortly afterwards.

With a little under eight minutes remaining, Nick Heidfeld, Giancarlo Fisichella, Nakajima, Jenson Button - less happy with the behaviour of his recalcitrant Honda this weekend than team-mate Rubens Barrichello - and Adrian Sutil remained in the danger zone, whilst further up the order Trulli improved to fourth and Piquet stunned everybody by closing to within a tenth of pace-setter and erstwhile GP2 Series championship rival Hamilton at the head of the timesheets.

Button was the first of those in danger to haul himself up to safety in eleventh, whilst fellow Brit David Coulthard in the Red Bull Racing jumped well clear of the cut by vaulting into fourth - pushing the driver who will take his place at the Milton Keynes-based outfit next year, Sebastian Vettel, down to 16th.

The young German was suffering with handling woes aboard his Scuderia Toro Rosso, as more and more drivers switched over to Bridgestone's softer rubber and the times began to tumble, Glock once again assuming the top spot.

Aside from the expected Force India presence, Vettel, Rosberg and Mark Webber were the men looking perilous with less than three minutes remaining, as Kovalainen improved to second - barely a tenth away from Glock - before Massa narrowly pipped the German by just three hundredths to go quickest once more.

Hamilton then shifted the goalposts significantly further with a stunning effort on what was still only his second run of the session, as Heidfeld could manage only eleventh, Vettel moved well into safety in eighth and Raikkonen improved to fourth with 19 of the 20 drivers all out on what had suddenly become an extremely busy track.

In the wave of last-ditch improvements, the impressive Glock staked his claim once more by marginally displacing Hamilton from the top of the order, as S?bastien Bourdais went tenth in the second STR - pushing the two BMWs down to just twelfth and 13th, leaving Barrichello on the cusp and putting Alonso in danger.

The Spaniard would save his skin at the very close of the session by lapping sixth-quickest, however, as Rosberg moved into Q2 in 13th, briefly edging Williams team-mate and fans' favourite Nakajima out.

Whilst the Japanese ace would make it through into Q2 on his very final effort, that improvement meant Heidfeld would ultimately miss the cut - no way for the experienced German to celebrate his contract renewal with BMW for 2009 and, with team-mate Kubica only narrowly ahead in 14th, testament to the F1.08's struggle for balance this weekend, the latter's fastest time in FP3 regardless.

Others to fail to make the mark were the two Hondas - Button missing out by just under half a second, with Barrichello abandoning his last 'flyer' - and the Force India duo, with the top ten composed of Glock, Hamilton, Massa, Raikkonen, Kovalainen, Alonso, the considerably improved Piquet, Coulthard, Webber and Trulli and, tantalisingly, a scant three hundredths of a second separating the two protagonists for the crown, with Raikkonen just five hundredths in arrears further still.

Both Ferraris were soon out in Q2, Massa swiftly decimating team-mate Raikkonen's first effort by almost half a second - and a full seven tenths quicker than Glock's Q1 marker - before Hamilton split the two Maranello machines, albeit almost two tenths away from Massa.

Bourdais was again showing strongly up in sixth early on in the session, just ahead of Webber, before Vettel vaulted into fifth and Coulthard went tenth, whilst Alonso looked all-at-sea in the Renault but nevertheless slotted into ninth position.

Third place for Kovalainen - at just a tenth of a second behind, the closest the Finn had been to Hamilton all weekend - bumped Raikkonen down to fourth, with Kubica moving into safety in seventh and the Toyotas still looking threatening in fifth (Trulli) and eighth (Glock).

With three minutes left on the clock, the two Red Bulls, two Williams' and Piquet were those in danger, as Kovalainen stayed out on-track to move past Hamilton into second. The under-fire Piquet managed just twelfth place in the Renault as the last-lap flurry commenced - and 15th-placed Rosberg needed to find a full second to make it into Q3.

Fourth-placed Raikkonen, meanwhile, was only a matter of tenths inside the top ten himself, as the field remained as closely-matched as it had been since the word 'go' in Friday morning practice.

In the closing moments there was misery for both Webber - who failed to make the chequered flag for one final lap, ending up an unlucky if perhaps apt 13th as he admitted to having over-driven - and Rosberg, who failed to move up from 15th.

Coulthard - who got the better of his RBR team-mate for only the second time this season, and the first since the Melbourne curtain-raiser all the way back in March - Piquet and Nakajima joined the pair in ending their qualifying sessions when the Q2 chequered flag fell.

Those progressing on to the top-ten shoot-out, by contrast, were Massa, Kovalainen, Hamilton, Trulli, Glock, Vettel, Raikkonen - who couldn't improve on his final run - Alonso, Kubica and Bourdais.

With nobody seemingly in any particular hurry to take to the track in Q3, it was the two Toyotas, two STRs and two Ferraris that ultimately blinked the earliest, with Hamilton following suit shortly afterwards.

Glock was the first of them to set a lap, but a suddenly on-form Raikkonen soon blew that effort into the water before Massa slotted in just behind his team-mate in second, and Hamilton could manage only the third-fastest time, three hundredths adrift of his chief contender for the crown.

Behind the top three, Kovalainen Kubica, Glock and Alonso were filling positions four through seven, as Trulli encountered a problem on his first effort and Ferrari almost suffered further pit-lane drama when Massa found himself with a 'box full of neutrals upon accelerating away.

With two minutes remaining, Raikkonen was going faster again, as Ferrari looked to quash McLaren and Hamilton's challenge - and the latter responded by going quickest of anyone through the first and second splits. Raikkonen lowered the mark by more than two tenths of a second, as Massa's final effort - whilst still his quickest - was not even close to threatening that of his team-mate.

Hamilton, though, really was on it, as the Briton stunned Ferrari to steal pole away from Raikkonen by 0.24 seconds, with Kovalainen and Alonso completing the Scuderia's misery by demoting Massa to just fifth, ahead of Kubica, Trulli, Glock, Vettel and Bourdais.

To see the qualifying times in full, click here


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