Sebastian Vettel is on pole position for the fourth time this season after leading the field in a chaotic qualifying session at Suzuka.
Three crashes forced the session to be stopped at different points, including a particularly worrying accident for Timo Glock.
Form was difficult to predict heading into qualifying. Friday practice has been largely washed out by rain, leaving the drivers with just the 60 minute Saturday morning session to get their race and qualifying set ups sorted.
But Mark Webber had to miss qualifying after crashing at the Degner curves during final practice. The team weren’t able to get his car repaired in time.
Buemi was one of the first drivers out but made a mistake on his first lap and hit the barrier. He got too far onto the kerb at the exit of Degner 1, which spat him off at the second part of the corner. Fortunately he stopped short of the barrier and was able to recover to the pits.
The Toyotas came on strong early in the session, with Trulli setting the fastest time ahead of team mate Timo Glock.
Vettel beat Trulli’s time and the pair swapped places at the head of the leaderboard twice, trading times on the hard tyres.
The first drivers to try the soft tyres were those at the bottom of the board – Giancarlo Fisichella and Romain Grosjean. Fisichella struggled to get within a second of team mate Raikkonen, and with less than two minutes to go both remained outside the top 15.
Buemi finally got a clean lap in with one minute to go and jumped up to fourth behind Vettel, Hamilton (revelling in the fast Suzuka track) and Trulli.
Kazuki Nakajima looked set to escape the drop zone with his final effort. But the home driver had a poor final sector, and failed to improve on 17th.
Drivers eliminated in Q1
16. Giancarlo Fisichella, Ferrari – 1’31.704
17. Kazuki Nakajima, Williams-Toyota – 1’31.718
18. Romain Grosjean, Renault – 1’32.073
19. Vitantonio Liuzzi, Force India-Mercedes – 1’32.087
20. Mark Webber, Red Bull-Renault – no time
Having made it into Q2 Alguersuari unfortunately didn’t last very long. Four minutes into the session the Toro Rosso driver went straight on at Degner and hit the barrier hard.
The red flags came out, stopping the session while Alguersuari lingered in the cockpit. After getting out he was taken to hospital as a precaution.
Qualifying resumed after a short delay but within four minutes the red flags were out again. This time it was for Glock, who’d crashed on the corner leading onto the pit straight.
Glock’s extrication took longer, and word came through that the Toyota driver had suffered a leg wound. Replays showed him understeering off at the turn and going a long way into the tyre barrier.
There was just under eight minutes left to run when Q2 restarted, but many drivers waiting until the final moments before going out to do a time – including both the Brawns.
It was a risky course of action to take given the crashes that had happened already – and sure enough, they got caught out. For the third time in qualifying, a Toro Rosso hit the barriers. Buemi went off at Spoon, throwing debris across the track and dragging his battered STR4 to the pit lane.
Both Brawns had to pass through the danger zone on their flying laps, which put them in the top six. It remains to be seen with they will be handed penalties.
Drivers eliminated in Q2
11. Nico Rosberg, Williams-Toyota – 1’31.482
12. Fernando Alonso, Renault – 1’31.638
13. Robert Kubica, BMW – 1’32.341
14. Timo Glock, Toyota – no time
15. Jaime Alguersuri, Toro Rosso-Ferrari – no time
Unbelievably, the red flags were out again in Q3. Kovalainen became the latest driver to lose his car at Degner, spinning sideways into the barrier. This proved only a brief interruption, however.
Vettel quickly went fastest with a 1’32.160, but Trulli mounted a challenge in his Toyota. In the end, he fell short by just 0.06s, and will join the Red Bull on the front row.
Hamilton took third after doing two laps in the final session. The Brawn drivers, repeating their tactics of coming out at the very end of the session, took fifth (Barrichello) and seventh (Button).
Sixth, seventh and eighth were covered by a mere 0.035s. With the top eight qualifying within 0.8s of each other, the fuel levels they’re carrying will be crucial tomorrow. We should find out what they are in a few hours’ time – and discover if any penalties are going to be handed out.
Top ten drivers in Q3
1. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault – 1’32.160
2. Jarno Trulli, Toyota – 1’32.220
3. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes – 1’32.396
4. Adrian Sutil, Force India-Mercedes – 1’32.466
5. Rubens Barrichello, Brawn-Mercedes – 1’32.660
6. Nick Heidfeld, BMW – 1’32.945
7. Jenson Button, Brawn-Mercedes – 1’32.962
8. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari – 1’32.980
9. Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren-Mercedes – no time
10. Sebastien Buemi, Toro Rosso-Ferrari – no time
Japanese Grand Prix