Lewis Hamilton soared through the mist engulfing the Fuji Speedway to take a hugely important fifth pole position of the season for the Japanese Grand Prix.

An entertaining qualifying session that had the added curve ball of terrible weather conditions, Hamilton timed his final flying lap to perfection to lead a McLaren 1-2, his lap of 1min 25.368secs pipping Fernando Alonso by less than a tenth.

A personal triumph more than anything, Hamilton met the challenged laid down by Alonso on an improving, but still slippery, surface to secure a crucial pole position as the title looks increasingly likely to go down to the wire.

While the session threw up its fair share of surprises down the order, there was no mistaking the typical McLaren and Ferrari domination, but while it was the latter team that looked the most comfortable in the worst of the conditions early on, neither Kimi Raikkonen nor Felipe Massa could match the McLaren's more supple chassis through the tighter turns as the standing water cleared.

Still, Hamilton's lap did not come without taking a risk, the Brit coming in early for a new set of wet tyres and finding them not to be offering up much more pace than the used tyres did during the fuel burn lap, thus opting to pit again for another set. It proved to be a shrewd move because while Hamilton left himself only a few seconds on the clock to start his final revolution, it was enough to make him the last driver to set a time and therefore make the most of the best conditions.

It was a fine lap too, giving the kerbs a wide berth but otherwise looking balanced, and although a slowing Sebastian Vettel on the pit straight caused Hamilton to dive to the left rather alarmingly, it was not enough to deny him.

Alonso though will start alongside him, no doubt likely to create a few conversations in the McLaren camp regarding front row etiquette following their tense moments at Spa-Francorhamps, particularly as Ferrari remain very close behind them.

Indeed, Raikkonen's hopes of pole position were ruined in the twisty final section of the lap, leaving him to contend with a time just under a tenth slower than Alonso and almost two tenths away from Hamilton. It was a similar sentiment for Massa, who set the first flying lap of the top four, but being forced to contend with fourth as a result ahead of a race that he must win if he wants to maintain his fading title hopes.

Things outside the top four were less predictable, with a couple of surprise appearances from unlikely candidates, particularly Jenson Button in the Honda, but most significantly Sebastian Vettel in the Toro Rosso.

Vettel was arguably the 'driver of the day' in the STR2, the German comfortably mixing it with the top flight after hauling the team into the top ten for the first time in their short careers. Perhaps slightly more frustrating for the German was the fact that just a tenth would have seen him up to seventh place on the grid instead of the ninth he secured.

Even so, he will start eighth on the grid once Nico Rosberg adheres to his ten-place grid penalty after Williams changed his Toyota engine between the races. The youngster was impressive as always, but will see his hard work for sixth place dulled by a 16th place starting position.

BMW had a mixed session, Robert Kubica looking strong in the knockout phases, but in the end doing only enough for tenth place on the grid. Nonetheless, his team-mate Nick Heidfeld remained ever consistent in fifth place, albeit eight tenths behind Massa in fourth.

Button was another driver to shine in the dingy session, the Brit yet again enjoying getting caught in the rain, the lamentable conditions doing a good job of covering up the deficiencies of the RA107 chassis and bringing out the best in his smooth driving style. He was a consistent front runner in the knockout phases and after securing seventh place, he will start a season-best sixth in Toyota's back yard...

Eighth in the session - and therefore seventh on the grid - meanwhile was Mark Webber, the Australian doing a typically solid job in the Red Bull to qualify in single figures again.

With the mist hanging in the air, qualifying got underway on time, almost as a surprise given the ominous forecast that had prompted a contingency plan from the FIA just before the session about how to decide grid positions before the race.

Nonetheless, while a wet circuit often creates a watching game between those looking to clear the standing water first, the complete unknown of the Fuji area and its weather complex created a busy start to the session as the drivers discovered the perils of the track in treacherous conditions.

Even so, the low lying fog arguably made the conditions appear worse than they were and save for a couple of spins for Vettel and Ralf Schumacher, intermediate tyres were being wheeled out after a few minutes when it became clear that track was getting quicker as the seconds wore away.

Despite conditions that would often suggest a surprise in the results, the key title protagonists were having few problems establishing themselves, if not as dominantly as usual.

Alonso and Massa were proving particularly quick, but while Hamilton had a rather hairy moment in the closing stages as he found himself swamped by traffic, the Brit was also comfortably through.

Instead, the final six drivers were all those that had experienced some time in the drop zone this year already, most significantly Rubens Barrichello and Alex Wurz, although there was disappointment for home fans too when both Aguris dropped out, Anthony Davidson 19th and Takuma Sato 21st, while Sakon Yamamoto was 22nd in the Spyker, his team-mate Adrian Sutil just ahead in 20th.

Still, while six drivers were eliminated, only 15 would make it to the second knockout phase when Ralf Schumacher ruined any hopes of a good qualifying position on his team's home soil by diving up the inside of Yamamoto in the final seconds and being caught out as the Spyker turned in. Getting briefly airborne in the otherwise low-speed clash, Schumacher would qualify yet go no further.

Crucially for this session, the rate of improvement in the track conditions slowed dramatically as light drizzle returned to disrupt proceedings, giving less of an advantage to those on their final laps. Indeed, this was particularly evident in the last minutes as those in the drop-zone attempted to haul themselves back into contention.

Again, there were few problems for the 'big four', Hamilton leading the quartet this time, while BMW duo Heidfeld and Kubica were also comfortably through.

The big news though was the appearance of Button and Vettel in the top ten, the duo doing enough to demote the Renaults of Giancarlo Fisichella to Heikki Kovalainen to 11th and 12th, the R27 looking rather evil on the slippery surface and displaying none of the speed that it had shown in the dry.

Rather more frustrating for the hopeful fans was the elimination of Trulli, the Italian unable to make the most of his prior experience of the circuit on a level playing field and as such managing just 14th - only the second time a Toyota hasn't made the top ten this year.

David Coulthard and Vitantonio Liuzzi were also forced out of the reckoning, qualifying 13th and 15th.

 

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