Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel kept his slim title hopes alive, taking pole in an action packed and controversial qualifying session for tomorrow's Japanese Grand Prix.
The other Red Bull driver, however, took no part in qualifying after an accident late in the final practice session damaged his car. “It wasn't a big crash by any means, but it did too much damage to the chassis so we have to change it,” explained Webber. “We don't have spare cars these days, so that's the outcome and it's a shame.”
Webber's morning off seemed to set the tone for qualifying, with several drivers finding their days ending in the barriers.
Sebastien Buemi was lucky to escape from the same Degner gravel trap that claimed Webber in practice, as the Swiss backed his car into the tyre wall, and limping back to the pits with only minor damage, re-emerging later to post a time fast enough to put him through to the second part of qualifying.
Not so lucky were the four drivers who dropped out in the first part, joining Mark Webber. Romain Grosjean's blighted F1 career continued as he qualified 18th, ahead of Tonio Luizzi, but behind First Practice pace setters Giancarlo Fisichella and Nakajima.
The appearance of the gird would, in hindsight, come down to the flurry of events in Q2. First three minutes into the session, Jaime Alguersuari, through to Q2 for the first time became the third Red Bull backed victim of Degner's gravel trap and wall, crashing nose first into the tyre wall, out of the session without setting a lap time and bringing out a red flag.
And it was not to be the last.
Timo Glock, back in the car after Kamui Kobayashi replaced him in practice yesterday, ran innocuously wide at the final sweeping right hander on the lap, bounced over another gravel trap (which are surely going to be questioned after this weekend) and crashed heavily into the tyre wall, the nose of his Toyota disappearing under them.
The red flag few again, and what looked innocent soon became more serious. While Glock was conscious after the accident – he quickly removed the steering wheel after impact – the site of the sheet appearing at the crash scene was still worrying.
It soon became clear that Glock had suffered “a leg wound” in the accident, although the team would later describe it as “a minor cut to his left leg”, along with “some back pain but no significant injuries.” The German was taken, via helicopter, to hospital.
After a fifteen minute red flag for Glock's accident the cars were unleashed again, and the second session had one more slice of drama to give. As the chequered flag flew at the finish line, the yellow flag was flying at Spoon Curve on the far side of the corner. Sebastien Buemi, having survived his brush with Degner and clocked a tie fast enough to see him through to the final part of qualifying, ran wide at the exit of the corner, bumping along the armco, wiping his front wing off and sending it along with other debris across the track.
Not far behind him were teams that had gambled on a late run, most notably the two Brawns. They avoided the debris, but despite the yellow flags barely eased off, with both drivers' time comfortably in the top ten, Button fourth and Barrichello sixth. Both were through to Q3. Out were crashees Alguersuari and Glock along with Kubica, Alonso and Rosberg.
The final part of qualifying, which did not include Buemi, whose car was too badly damaged to take part, got underway, and before long the Degner corner had claimed another victim, and this one wasn't even sponsored by a well known energy drink!
It was Heikki Kovalainen, who had run onto the grass before the right hander and therefore given himself no chance of ever making the corner. He became another driver to bounce over the gravel trap, another driver to hit the tyre barrier, and another driver to cause a stoppage, on what was becoming a career day for the red flag.
When the session restarted it was Vettel who was fastest, ahead of Trulli, Hamilton and Sutil, the championship contending Brawns coming in fifth and seventh – Barrichello ahead of Button.
However, it hadn't finished really.
The stewards were casting their collective eye over the events at the close of Q2, and the flying laps set despite the remains of Buemi's Toro Rosso.
Button and Barrichello were both penalised five grid penalties, as were Alonso and Sutil. Buemi, who limped his car back to the pits on the track as others were running at speed was also put back five places. “In Q1 after I crashed, I managed to bring it back to the pits and have it repaired,” said Buemi in his defence. “So after the second accident, I felt I had to try and bring it back again.”
Alonso, the sole driver whose comments on the matter were available at the time of writing said “I explained [to the stewards] that coming out of turn 14 I had little visibility because of the dust left from Buemi spinning into the gravel â€¦then I saw debris of a wing in the middle of the track, which I avoided and at that point I saw the yellow flag and immediately slowed down and came carefully into the pits.”
The Spaniard will start the race tomorrow 17th, Sutil ninth and the two Brawns tenth and twelfth, split by Glock, who is unlikely to be fit to take his grid slot.
With the penalties, Kovalainen, running significantly heavier than the front runner will sixth, ahead of Rosberg and Kubica, fuelled ever heavier.
At the head of the field Vettel will start on pole as he attempts to stay in the title chase. “The car worked fantastically today and we were quickest in Q1, Q2 and Q3,” said the German. “I'm very happy, we're back to full strength since Singapore and have now put the car on pole. A good day today, now let's see tomorrow.”