Ninth place in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix was not what Sebastian Vettel needed as he seeks to claw back the 50-point deficit to Lewis Hamilton in the title race. But despite the setback, the Ferrari driver was in no doubt that he’s got the pace in his SF71H challenger to make his way through the field come race day.
With light drizzle having fallen intermittently throughout qualifying in Suzuka, Ferrari opted to send both Vettel and team mate Kimi Raikkonen out on intermediate tyres at the start of Q3. It proved to be the wrong call, with scant standing water on the track to justify the grooved rubber.
Both drivers had plenty of time to trade in their inters for the red-walled supersoft tyres that Mercedes had sent Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas out on. But while Raikkonen managed to claim fourth despite worsening conditions, Vettel made an error at Spoon corner on his first flying lap, before deteriorating weather wiped out the German’s chance of improving. That saw him end the session in ninth place – although that will become eighth on Sunday, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon receiving a three-place grid drop for failing to slow down sufficiently under red flag conditions in Free Practice 3.
“I think the first run was sort of okay,” said Vettel afterwards. “I had a mistake in Spoon so lost most of the time there. But obviously the second run we didn’t make it out on time because the rain came so we were too late.”