Sebastian Vettel kept alive his slim hope of snatching the drivers championship with a stunning pole in a chaotic qualification session at Suzuka.
But it looks to be a nervy weekend for Jenson Button as the championship favourite qualified in seventh, two places behind main rival Rubens Barrichello.
Button, remember, needs to finish five points clear of Barrichello to secure the title this weekend, an outcome that looks unlikely after a quali session disrupted by three red flags for big crashes.
Button’s task could become even trickier if he is found to have set his best time in Q2 when yellow flags were out. If the Briton is penalised, however, it seems likely that Barrichello will also be demoted.
Toyota’s Timo Glock, suffering from a heavy cold, suffered the biggest crash of the day, understeering massively through the final chicane and slamming into the wall at 165mph. He was stretchered from the track, conscious but complaining of a ‘leg wound’. It is not clear whether the German will race tomorrow.
It was a hectic session all round, with Sebastien Buemi and Heikki Kovalainen also finding the wall and Red Bull’s Mark Webber sitting out the entire session, his Red Bull requiring a new chassis after his crash in practice. The Australian will start from 20th on the grid.
Which means it’s a Red Bull grid sandwich tomorrow, with Webber’s teammate Vettel storming every session for his fourth pole of the year. Jarno Trulli sneaked second for Toyota, with Lewis Hamilton qualifying in third.
We’ll have to wait for the fuel loads to be published to determine the cars’ true pace, but it’s clear that Vettel is going to be hugely quick tomorrow, while the Brawns don’t seem quite right.
“It wasn’t a great qualifying,” admitted Ross Brawn after the race. “We’re fuelled about 17 laps but I don’t think we did the lap time we thought we could do on that load.”
But if the race follows the pattern of quali, just about anything could happen at Suzuka tomorrow. Prediction time: who are you tipping for the podium?