Sebastian Vettel took his fourth pole position this season in a chaotic Suzuka qualifying session that was interrupted by three red flags for massive crashes, one of which has left Timo Glock injured.
The Red Bull Racing driver dominated the all-important Q3 session by setting the quickest time in all three segments around the challenging 3.62-mile race track. Vettel stopped the clocks at one minute, 32.160 seconds to earn his first pole since Silverstone, beating Jarno Trulli and Lewis Hamilton in the process.
As for the championship contenders at the Brawn GP team, Rubens Barrichello has outqualified his team-mate Jenson Button with fifth and seventh respectively. However the pair could possibly face penalties after setting their best Q2 times while yellow flags were out.
The first two red flags occurred in Q2 when Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari crashed head-on into the tyre barriers after running wide at the tricky Degner corner.
The Spaniard was assisted out of his broken car by track marshals and after a check-up with the Formula One medical team he is cleared to race.
Toyota’s Timo Glock had a far larger shunt when accelerating out of the Casino Triangle chicane. The German seemed to understeered off the turn leading to the pit straight and directly into the tyre barrier.
The medical team carefully extracted Glock, who was conscious and moving in the cockpit, and he was removed from the scene on a stretcher. The German waved to the crowd as he was placed into an ambulance and is being taken to hospital by helicopter with pain in his back and left leg.
The Toyota team will decide on race day morning whether Glock is available to take part in the Japanese Grand Prix. If the German is out of action following this incident, Toyota will consider the use of Kamui Kobayashi.
The Japanese driver has already replaced Glock in Friday’s wet practice sessions, when the German was feeling unwell. However, under the current Formula One regulations, Kobayashi would not be allowed to race unless he gets special dispensation from the sport’s governing body, the FIA. If not, then the sole remaining Toyota of Jarno Trulli will represent the team in its home Grand Prix.
With the red flags having interrupted most drivers’ preparation for quick laps in Q2, there was a last minute sprint to get through into Q3. In that rush, Sebastien Buemi crashed on the exit of Spoon Curve and deposited his Toro Rosso’s front wing and other carbon fibre debris in the middle of the track as he limited back to the pits.
Yellow flags were waved at this section of the circuit, and yet both Barrichello and Button set their fastest sector times to make it through into the top-ten shootout. Renault’s Fernando Alonso obeyed the warning by backing off (but had to overtake the slow Buemi even though overtaking is not allowed under yellow flags). The double world champion will start in a disappointing P12, with Nico Rosberg (Williams) and Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber) also knocked out.
That Spoon Curve incident was Buemi’s second accident in qualifying, as he had already spun backwards into the Degner tyre wall in Q1. Luckily, he was able to return back to the pits and after fitting a new rear wing on his Toro Rosso, he was able to record a lap to go through into Q2. But in a bid to improve his time, the Swiss pushed too hard and it was trip into the barriers.
The third red flag came out in Q3 when McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen crashed at that demanding Degner Curve. The Finn had earlier spun at the tricky turn in Q1 without hitting anything. Unfortunately, the next time through on his first flying lap in Q3, he spun and hit the outside barrier. The Finn escaped unhurt but will join fellow shunt specialist Buemi on row five on the grid.
Why was so many drivers flying off the track and crashing? The reason could be down to two big factors. The first is the limited running on the dry track, no thanks to a complete washout in Friday’s practice sessions. The second is that the drivers were taking more risks in a bid to set competitive lap times. Combining these two factors has resulted in a messy qualifying session with drivers pushing a bit too far in a car that hasn’t been properly set up for the figure of eight race circuit.
Anyway, back to Q3 at Suzuka. With Kovalainen’s damaged car moved away, the session finally proceeded without any further drama to the chequered flag, with Vettel securing his pole position with just one flying lap.
His Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber missed out on the whole session after a crash in final free practice. Where did the Australian go off? Yes, it was that corner again… The team was unable to repair his RB5 so Webber will start the Japanese Grand Prix at the back of the grid in a new chassis.
Behind Trulli and Singapore Grand Prix winner Hamilton, Force India’s Adrian Sutil grabbed fourth spot with BMW’s Nick Heidfeld splitting the Brawns in sixth position.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen lines up eighth while team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella was within half a second of his team-mate’s pace in Q1, but that left him back in P16. It was a similar story for home driver Kazuki Nakajima, who only managed P17 for Williams.
Renault’s Romain Grosjean and the Force India of Tonio Liuzzi were the other Q1 departures, with the latter set to take a gearbox change penalty, along with Webber.
UPDATE: Revised line-up following penalties for five drivers for not backing off during a yellow flag period in Q2.
Qualifying times from Suzuka:
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:32.160
2. Trulli Toyota 1:32.220
3. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:32.395
4. Heidfeld BMW-Sauber 1:32.945
5. Raikkonen Ferrari 1:32.980
6. Rosberg Williams-Toyota 1:31.482
7. Kubica BMW-Sauber 1:32.341
8. Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:32.466*
9. Barrichello Brawn-Mercedes 1:32.660*
10. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:31.571
11. Button Brawn-Mercedes 1:32.962*
12. Fisichella Ferrari 1:31.704
13. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes 1:31.223**
14. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:31.103*
15. Nakajima Williams-Toyota 1:31.718
16. Grosjean Renault 1:32.073
17. Alonso Renault 1:31.638*
18. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:32.087**
19. Glock Toyota 1:31.550***
20. Webber Red Bull-Renault No time***
* Five-place grid penalty
** Five-place grid penalty for changing gearbox
*** Will use new chassis so will start from the pitlane