F1: Round 15 – Suzuka, Japan – Qualifying [updated]

A dramatic and incident-packed qualifying saw more crashes and red flags in a single session than we’ve seen in qualifying in the entire season to date – and more post-session readjustments of the starting grid than ever before, too.

Sebastien Buemi started the proceedings off with a bang, running off into the gravel at second Degner (the same place that claimed Mark Webber in free practice) and ending up going backwards into the tyre wall. Despite that, Buemi bounced back and was not only able to get another run but actually put himself up into 5th place by the end of Q1.

It was a good session for his two surviving team mates as well – Sebastian Vettel obliterated the competition and took an easy top place ahead of an impressive Lewis Hamilton (competing for the first time at Suzuka), and Jaime Alguersuari got through to Q2 by a tenth of a second for the first time in his still-new F1 career.

Alguersuari featured in the next big incident, in Q2: he too ran wide in Degner 2, mirroring Webber’s accident by running onto the gravel and then losing all hope of handling, ploughing head-on into the tyre wall as a result as the gravel trap did little to slow him. The car was badly damaged, sufficient to bring out a red flag straight away while Alguersuari was removed from the car and the mess cleared up and the tyre wall repaired. Alguersuari was ushered away but soon popped up in the paddock to show he was unhurt.

The delay was only brief – 6 minutes – before the cars were racing again, but within three minutes the red flag was out again. This time it was Toyota not Toro Rosso, and the scene of the crime was the final corner rather than Degner: coming out of the turn onto the pit lane, Glock seemed to understeer badly, lost handling and went straight on into the tyre wall at an angle at near-full speed, burying the nose of the Toyota deep into the tyres. Although Glock quickly removed his steering wheel and threw it away angrily, it was clear that something more was amiss and the medical crews needed an extended period to remove him, with the team told he had sustained a “left leg wound” or cut from some wreckage puncturing the driver’s safety cell plus some lower back pain. Glock was duly stretched away to the medical facility and then to hospital by helicopter, but fortunately the cut – while bloody, and serious enough to rule him out of the race – was minor and Glock was back limping around the paddock on race day.

By this point, half the session had gone and only two cars of 15 had set times, with several drivers caught out twice by having the red flag abort the session while they were on flying laps. No wonder hat everyone was in a hurry to get back on track once the track went green again after a 12 minute hiatus, with both Brawns risking a single flying lap as the time ticked out – a risky strategy if there was another late-session incident.

And there was: after setting another excellent time, Buemi overcooked it on his final flying lap and ran wide out of Spoon, skating over another ineffectual gravel trap to broadside the arnco barrier with considerable force, running along the barrier making repeated barriers for an extended distance. The impact wrecked his tyres and suspension and knocked his front wing off which came to rest in the middle of the track. As Buemi limped back to the pits the yellow flags came out – as multiple cars were on their final (and in most cases only) flying lap of the day and the Q2 session clocked showed 0:00.

The Brawns came through the scene of Buemi’s crash and frankly continued at full speed without regard for the yellows – they had to, or else sacrifice any hope of getting through to Q1. But it was very much against the yellow flag rules which state that no driver should set a fastest lap in a section of the track under yellow. Still, the stewards made no immediate ruling on the situation and Nico Rosberg, Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica were all eliminated (alongside the obviously-out Glock and Alguersuari.)

After all this drama, everyone was hoping for a return-to-normal Q3 session – but Heikki Kovalainen put paid to those hopes three minutes into the session, again hitting problems at second Degna, running into the gravel and then unable to turn into the next corner, skating off sideways to hit the tyre wall at relatively low speed. Kovalainen had been looking on or over the edge from quite early on – only getting through Q3 with a remarkably ragged flying lap – but this had been pushing it too far. Damage to car and driver appeared minimal – Kovalainen was quickly out and about – but with it happening at such as high-incident corner the marshals were in no mood to take chances.

And now back to racing, with no one having put in a flying lap with four minutes to go and only four cars involved now that Kovalainen had joined Buemi on the sidelines. Kimi Raikkonen was quickly out, but he was disadvantaged by having run out of soft tyres and needing to stage his final Q3 run on the harder compound.

Sebastian Vettel easily put in a crushing time to claim pole position, ahead of Jarno Trulli who had been flying for most of Saturday, presumably on a light fuel lap. Lewis Hamilton slotted into third place, but both Brawns – gambling on a single flying lap right at the end of the Q3 – were underwhelming, Rubens Barrichello managing fifth with his team mate and championship rival Jenson Button starting right behind him on the grid in seventh. If the race finished in that order, then not only would Barrichello cut into Button’s lead by 2pts (not nearly enough) but Vettel would remain in the title chase – mathematically, at least.

But of course, the drama wasn’t quite over yet: there was the small matter of Buemi getting penalised for dangerously limping back to the pits in a broken car, and the cars out there who set their fastest times through a yelow flag sector: Button, Barrichello, Renault driver Fernando Alonso, Force India’s Adrian Sutil all got five-place grid penalties for the transgression, as did Buemi. And just to round off the biggest-ever post-qualifying readjustment of the starting grid, we also saw Glock (if he’d been fit to race) relegated to starting from the pit lane alongside Mark Webber because of the need to use a new chassis; and Kovalainen needing a new gearbox, meaning a five-place grid drop for him, too. There was a lot of head scratching as everyone tried to figure out the order in which the penalties were applied – and the FIA itself couldn’t publish a definitive answer until Sunday, when the outcome that Barrichello ended up down only one place while Button dropped three spots raised more than a few eyebrows.

Phew. Exciting times indeed for F1’s return to a classic Grand Prix venue.

Why so many crashes? Well, the almost total loss of practice on Friday, together with the track been washed of any grip by the rain and the fact that this is an old style track with tricky corners and less generous run off areas (and some seriously ineffective gravel traps) seemed to blame.

Whatever, this was certainly a qualifying session worth getting up early for, and more than made up for the dull, event-less Friday running!

Qualifying positions (revised)

Pos  Driver          Team                 Q1        Q2        Q3      
 1.  Vettel          Red Bull-Renault     1:30.883  1:30.341  1:32.160
 2.  Trulli          Toyota               1:31.063  1:30.737  1:32.220
 3.  Hamilton        McLaren-Mercedes     1:30.917  1:30.627  1:32.395
 4.  Heidfeld        BMW-Sauber           1:31.501  1:31.260  1:32.945
 5.  Raikkonen       Ferrari              1:31.228  1:31.052  1:32.980
 6.  Barrichello *   Brawn-Mercedes       1:31.272  1:31.055  1:32.660
 7.  Rosberg         Williams-Toyota      1:31.286  1:31.482
 8.  Sutil       *   Force India-Mercedes 1:31.386  1:31.222  1:32.466
 9.  Kubica          BMW-Sauber           1:31.417  1:32.341
10.  Button      *   Brawn-Mercedes       1:31.041  1:30.880  1:32.962
11.  Kovalainen  **  McLaren-Mercedes     1:31.499  1:31.223
12.  Alguersuari     Toro Rosso-Ferrari   1:31.571
13.  Buemi       *   Toro Rosso-Ferrari   1:31.196  1:31.103 
14.  Fisichella      Ferrari              1:31.704
15.  Nakajima        Williams-Toyota      1:31.718
16.  Alonso      *   Renault              1:31.401  1:31.638
17.  Grosjean        Renault              1:32.073
18.  Liuzzi          Force India-Mercedes 1:32.087
19.  Webber      *** Red Bull-Renault      
20.  Glock       *** Toyota               1:31.550

*   Five-place grid penalty
**  Five-place grid penalty for changing gearbox
*** Will use new chassis so will start from the pitlane

Post-qualifying car weights

Pos  Driver                             Weight (kg)
 1.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault       658.5
 2.  Trulli       Toyota                 655.5
 3.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes       656.0
 4.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes   650.0
 5.  Barrichello  Brawn-Mercedes         660.5
 6.  Heidfeld     BMW-Sauber             660.0
 7.  Button       Brawn-Mercedes         658.5
 8.  Raikkonen    Ferrari                661.0
 9.  Kovalainen   McLaren-Mercedes       675.0
10.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari     665.4*
11.  Rosberg      Williams-Toyota        684.5*
12.  Alonso       Renault                689.5*
13.  Kubica       BMW-Sauber             686.0*
14.  Glock        Toyota                 -
15.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     682.5*
16.  Fisichella   Ferrari                661.5*
17.  Nakajima     Williams-Toyota        695.7*
18.  Grosjean     Renault                691.8*
19.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes   682.5*
20.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault       -

* declared weight

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