While an engine failure condemned Vettel to last on the grid, Hamilton, a distant sixth in Friday practice and just fourth in Q2, secured one of the most unlikely pole positions of his career with a bolt-from-the-blue lap at the start of Q3.
Hamilton is confident the track layout and cooler conditions in Japan will suit Mercedes more than the heat of Singapore and Malaysia, but is not ruling out Vettel and Ferrari making a comeback. They had brought aerodynamic upgrades to Sepang which did not improve performance and contributed to the difficulty they had with balance, set-up and grip. While Bottas continued to use the new kit, Hamilton reverted to the parts he had used previously this season.
With five races remaining, he felt strongly that he knew the direction the team should pursue in order to best serve his attempt to win a fourth title. He has been on a roll, winning four of the last five F1 races. "I'm happy that I'm here and we're racing, I'm happy to be racing when we have a good chance to do well".
He had been passed by Verstappen for the lead on lap four and insisted that given his pace he was pleased with his race. "The long game approach I took, I believe, is the right one".
"I had to really make a decision when Max was closing me down, to not fight him and risk him crashing into me, because he's going to give it everything - he's got nothing to lose, whereas I've got everything to lose", Hamilton said, as quoted by Sky Sports. The race from Suzuka begins at 6am on Sunday.
Max Verstappen overtakes Hamilton during the race. The Sepang International Circuit is a 5.543 km track, with ambient temperatures averaging more than 30°C and humidity typically around 70-80%. So I just need to get that back and need to get that feeling of enjoying the driving and letting yourself be a bit looser.
"These next races are going to be crucial in terms of ironing out some of the creases we have with the auto". The race was very hot. And I was so glad to see him win one on merit.
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Hamilton has struggled with the vehicle before, most notably at Russian Federation and Monaco but the team felt they had solved the issues and the British driver had won four of the previous five grands prix. However Malaysia proved that Mercedes still have some way to go to master their auto and that despite the points advantage they could take nothing for granted.
Like the kind of racing finish you'd see in a wondrous alternate universe that we've all secretly wished for since Talladega Nights came out, every auto was out of the race before it ended.
The championship leader said the cooler conditions in Japan should suit his vehicle better than the sweltering heat of Singapore and Malaysia. Both men avoided punishment for the incident but there were concerns the gearbox in Vettel's vehicle had been damaged - which would have required a change and, as it had not lasted six consecutive events, prompted an automatic five-place grid penalty in Suzuka. Ferrari have sent the gearbox back to Maranello to assess whether it can be used.
We had such a hard day yesterday, it was hard to know where we stood, Hamilton said.
"I'm hoping it's not like this at the next few races".
The stewards investigated the incident but concluded neither driver was at fault.