SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Nico Rosberg claimed a fortuitous pole position ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton at the Japanese Grand Prix on Saturday as Mercedes returned to its dominant form.
Rosberg, who trails Hamilton by 41 points in the championship, took pole in unusual circumstances, as all drivers were denied a last flying lap due to a red flag following a serious crash by Red Bull's Daniil Kvyat.
That meant Rosberg's initial time — just eight hundredths of a second better than Hamilton — stood for pole. Hamilton's initial lap included a lock-up mistake at the hairpin which cost him significant time, so likely he would have surpassed Rosberg on their last run.
The result was a relief for Mercedes, which suffered a rare setback at last weekend's Singapore Grand Prix. Hamilton was forced to retire for the first time this season because of an engine-clamp failure while Rosberg finished fourth on a weekend when the team struggled for pace.
"It's a good comeback for the team after a difficult weekend in Singapore," Rosberg said. "To be back to our usual strength today is fantastic. It was a strong performance by the team and we had a great car."
Hamilton rued the missed opportunity on the last lap.
"The second lap was looking good," Hamilton said. "On the first lap I lost a bit of time on Turn 11 and the last corner. Nico is driving pretty well this weekend. I definitely felt pretty good on that last lap."
Williams' Valtteri Bottas was third ahead of Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, who won last weekend in Singapore.
The next row followed the same pattern, with Williams' Felipe Massa ahead of Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo qualified seventh and Kvyat 10th, separated by Lotus' Romain Grosjean and Force India's Sergio Perez.
Kvyat's car spun off the track, slammed into a tire barrier and flipped over, but the Russian climbed out of the wreck unaided.
A crane came out to remove Kvyat's car, which was heavily damaged. The incident was eerily reminiscent of a horrific crash involving Jules Bianchi at last year's race
Bianchi's accident occurred at the end of the race. In rainy, gloomy conditions, Bianchi's car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.
Bianchi went into a coma after the accident and died in July.
Hamilton won last year's race at Suzuka but Vettel has had the most success here of any current F1 driver, winning four times between 2009 and 2013.
Rosberg also claimed pole at last year's race but ended up finishing second.
"Hopefully, it's going to be a dry race tomorrow, that would help," Rosberg said. "Beyond that, I'm really comfortable with the way the car was handling this morning in the dry, good long run, quick, so it should be all good."