Formula One championship contenders Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello were among five drivers penalized five starting places in a chaotic day of qualifying Saturday for the Japanese Grand Prix.
The Brawn GP pair, Renault’s Fernando Alonso and Force India’s Adrian Sutil failed to slow when yellow flags were waved during the second session of qualifying. Toro Rosso’s Sebastian Buemi, whose accident brought out the flags, also drops back five spots.
Button and Barrichello, who had qualified in seventh and fifth places respectively, will now be at a major disadvantage to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who will start from pole position and still retains slim championship hopes.
“It’s disappointing because it’s (now) far more difficult to score points tomorrow to try to do what we’re trying to do,” Brawn GP team principal Ross Brawn said. “It could have been worse. There are examples in the past of far more draconian penalties for doing the same thing. We did commit an offense.”
Heikki Kovalainen of McLaren will also drop back five spots for changing his gearbox, while there was doubt over whether Timo Glock of Toyota will be able to take his place in Sunday’s race after a heavy crash.
So confusing was the situation that FIA said it will wait until Sunday to announce the starting grid.
Vettel sees a glimmer of hope to revive his championship chances. Button leads Barrichello by 15 points. Vettel is a further 10 points back in third, with two more races left after the Japan GP.
“Three races to go, it’s quite a big gap, but every race has to be a chance,” Vettel said. “We are in the best position for tomorrow’s race. We have a very, very good chance.”
The penalties came after a number of crashes at Suzuka, the most serious being Glock’s heavy fronton collision with a tire wall.
Glock was hospitalized with back pain and a cut leg, and Toyota said it will decide early Sunday if he is fit. The team has asked stewards to allow reserve driver Kamui Kobayashi of Japan to step in if Glock can’t drive, even though he took no part in qualifying.
Mark Webber crashed in morning practice, damaging his Red Bull car to prevent him taking part in qualifying, so he will start from pit—lane. Even allowing for Brawn GP’s penalties and Vettel’s pole, that makes it difficult for Red Bull, which must score at least seven more points than Brawn GP on Sunday to retain a mathematical chance in the constructors’ championship.
Webber crashed into the tire wall at the Degner Curve, and the same long right-hand turn in the mid-part of the lap later claimed Buemi, Kovalainen and Jaime Alguersuari.
The accidents saw qualifying suspended by red flags three times, disrupting the strategies of all drivers.
Buemi crashed in the closing seconds of the second part of qualifying, causing the incidents that led to the grid penalties. Yellow flags were waved, meaing drivers have to slow in that section. However, both Brawn GP cars, Alonso and Sutil continued at top speed, weaving through the debris.
“I respect their decision, but for me it was the best thing to do,” Button said. “I had one second to make a decision.”
Buemi was penalized for continuing after hitting a barrier and causing major damage to his car, impeding trailing drivers in the process.
Jarno Trulli of Toyota will start alongside Vettel on the front row. It was a creditable effort from the Italian, who is auditioning to be picked up by another team next year as Toyota has gone public with its desire to recruit new drivers.
Lewis Hamilton of McLaren will start from third. The in-form driver, who won last weekend’s Singapore GP, is a strong chance to be leading after the long run down to the first corner, as he has the advantage of the KERS power-boost device.