Sebastian Vettel qualified on pole for the Japanese Grand Prix at a pitiless Suzuka circuit that punished the slightest weakness shown by drivers struggling with form, illness or an unfamiliar car.
Qualifying was disrupted by multiple red flags and smaller crashes, leaving many of the front-runners to gamble on just one timed lap during each of the second and third sessions.
Lewis Hamilton ran enough laps to allow himself to grab third, while the Brawn pairing of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button cashed in their single laps for fifth and seventh on the grid.
Button, who could become world champion this race with a strong enough performance compared to Barrichello, said his qualifying was okay: “It was a tough session. No one got any practice yesterday, very little this morning. Three red flags is very unusual so I hope everyone is okay. I think we’ve got a reasonable amount of fuel on board so, yeah, it’s good. I’m not looking at Sebastian.”
Vettel was the class of the field throughout qualifying, outpacing Jarno Trulli’s attempt to set a crowd-pleasing pole time, and the pair will share the front row in tomorrow’s race – but their team-mates had less happy experiences.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber crashed in final practice at the second Degner corner – the first of many drivers to do so during the day – and missed qualifying altogether, while Timo Glock ran wide at the final corner of his first flying lap in the second session and buried his Toyota in the tyre wall.
A lengthy halt in the procedings followed while he was lifted from his car and stretchered away, later to be flown to hospital with what his team described as a “leg wound”.
Glock had missed Friday practice because of ill health and may still have been suffereing the after-effects, but Toro Rosso’s two inexperienced drivers could not claim a similar excuse for error-strewn performances that saw them unable to cope with a significant increase in pace produced by their team.
Sebastien Buemi crashed backwards into the tyres at Degner early in the first qualifying session, but limped back to the pits to be repaired in time to come out late in the session and qualify handily for the next stage. McLaren’s under-pressure Heikki Kovalainen narrowly avoided a similar accident, starting his spin early enough to allow him to bring the car back under control.
Buemi’s team-mate Jaime Alguersuari qualified for the second session in 15th, the first time he has advanced from qualifying one since his promotion from World Series by Renault. But, just as at the last race in Monza, the other drivers forced to learn a new car midseason – Romain Grosjean, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Giancarlo Fisichella – failed to make it out of Q1. They were joined in dropping out by the underperforming Kazuki Nakajima.
Q2 was disrupted by one yellow and two red flags, with Alguersuari triggering the first by becoming the next driver to misjudge the Degner curve, hitting the tyres nose-first at speed. The session had only just re-started after that incident when Glock suffered his accident.
When the session finally restarted, with only minutes left on the clock, only two cars had by then set times. A charge to qualify by the remaining 13 cars followed – and Buemi suffered his second accident, hitting the barrier on the exit of Spoon and recklessly returning to the pits despite a badly damaged car that had left much of its front wing in the middle of the racing line.
Both BMWs and Renault’s Fernando Alonso felt they had been disadvantaged by the trundling Toro Rosso, while Button, Barrichello and Adrian Sutil set their only timed lap while a yellow flag was flying for Buemi’s debris. Under a strict interpretation of the rules all three should have had that lap time discounted, but all were allowed to continue to Q3 at the expense of Alonso, Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg.
Five drivers were summoned to see the stewards after qualifying for ignoring yellow flags.
With Buemi unable to take his place in the final session nine cars went off in search of pole – but the nine swiftly became eight as Kovalainen repeated his earlier spin, but not his earlier save, and brought out qualifying’s third red flag by crashing.
In the remaining minutes after the restart Vettel continued to assert his dominance, with Trulli, Hamilton and Sutil in his wake. The Brawns came out late to set the day’s final laps, only to be split in the final timings by BMW’s Nick Heidfeld. Kimi Raikkonen took eighth.
Following the session, Lewis Hamilton said: “We didn’t expect to be as competitive as we were this afternoon. Our car was tricky this morning and we had to make some significant changes between sessions.
“It was impossible to extract the best from the car, especially through the first sector. We didn’t have much time to develop a dry set-up so we went into qualifying hoping that the changes would work – and they did.
I’ve said it before, but I really love this circuit, it’s so much fun and has such history and character; I feel honoured and overwhelmed to be driving where the great drivers of the past have raced.
“I would love to win here tomorrow, and I’ll do everything I can to do so: I’ll drive my heart out. Although the Red Bull will be very hard to beat, there’s a long run down to Turn One and our KERS is working better than ever.
“Sebastian has more to worry about than I do, too. He’ll be looking at the world championship, I’m just here to have a good time and score some points for my team to help us move further up the Constructors’ Championship table.”
Provisional Japanese Grand Prix qualifying positions
- Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, 1:32.160 (Q3)
- Jarno Trulli, Toyota, 1:32.220 (Q3)
- Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, 1:32.395 (Q3)
- Adrian Sutil, Force India, 1:32.466 (Q3)
- Rubens Barrichello, Brawn, 1:32.660 (Q3)
- Nick Heidfeld, BMW ,1:32.945 (Q3)
- Jenson Button, Brawn, 1:32.962 (Q3)
- Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 1:32.980 (Q3)
- Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren, no time (Q3)
- Sebastien Buemi, Toro Rosso, no time (Q3)
- Nico Rosberg, Williams, 1:31.482 (Q2)
- Fernando Alonso, Renault, 1:31.638 (Q2)
- Robert Kubica, BMW, 1:32.341 (Q2)
- Timo Glock, Toyota, no time (Q2)
- Jaime Alguersuari, Toro Rosso, no time (Q2)
- Giancarlo Fisichella, Ferrari, 1:31.704 (Q1)
- Kazuki Nakajima, Williams, 1:31.718 (Q1)
- Romain Grosjean, Renault, 1:32.073 (Q1)
- Vitantonio Liuzzi, Force India, 1:32.087 (Q1) *
- Mark Webber, Red Bull, did not participate
* Will take five-place penalty for changing gearbox.