A delighted Sebastian Vettel has kept alive his slim challenge for the drivers world championship when he claimed pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix. The 22-year-old German in his Red Bull clocked a scorching fastest lap in the final minute of qualifying to secure his fourth pole of the year. If he wins, he could still wreck the hopes of Brawn GP duo Briton Jenson Button and Brazilian Rubens Barrichello who are bidding to turn the title showdown into a private duel.
Vettel is 25 points behind Button with three races remaining and must score six points more than the Englishman if he is to maintain his title challenge. Button qualified only seventh and clocked his best lap when yellow warning flags were waving around the circuit, a fact that may mean his lap is annulled and push him down the grid. Button and five other drivers who also continued to clock lap times under yellow flags were called to see the stewards after a session dominated by flags and stoppages, with three major accidents causing serious disruption.
Button's team-mate Barrichello qualified fifth. "There's three races to go and it's quite a big gap so every race has to be a chance if you still want to keep our chances alive," said Vettel. "We came here to race and we want to win. I think we are in the best position for Sunday's race. It is a long race, obviously tough for the tyres and I think really tough for the drivers." The 22-year-old made the most of his late chance on a dramatic day of accidents with a fastest lap in one minute and 32.160 seconds.
It lines him up in prime position alongside Italian Jarno Trulli after the Toyota driver claimed second place. Defending world champion, Briton Lewis Hamilton, was third for McLaren Mercedes ahead of German Adrian Sutil, in a Force India, and Barrichello in the leading Brawn. German Nick Heidfeld was sixth for BMW Sauber and Button seventh ahead of Finn Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari. Button needs to finish five points ahead of Barrichello to clinch the championship.
"It's okay. It was a tough session. No-one got any practice on Friday and very little this morning. Three red flags is very unusual so I hope everyone is OK," said Button. "I think we've got a reasonable amount of fuel on board, so yeah, it's good. I'm not looking at Sebastian really." Barrichello added: "To beat JB (Jenson Button) on the same fuel level is an aim I have reached. When you don't have the car to win, that's what you have to aim for. We didn't have a very competitive session."
The pair's team boss Ross Brawn described qualifying as "a very, very messy session". "We had a good balance on low fuel, not so good on high fuel. It wasn't a great qualifying. We're fuelled about 17 laps but I don't think we did the lap time we thought we could do on that load." The drivers who crashed were Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari and his Red Bull team-mate Swiss Sebastien Buemi, Finn Heikki Kovalainen of McLaren Mercedes and German Timo Glock of Toyota.
Buemi's accident was not as bad as the others and he did not stop, but drove on to the pits under yellow flags. The other three all rammed heavily into the tyre barriers. Glock remained in his car after his crash as the medical team arrived but he was able to wave and give a thumbs-up as he was lifted out and transferred to a helicopter on a stretcher. Early reports suggested he suffered a leg wound.
Australian Mark Webber did not take part in the session for Red Bull after crashing at the treacherous Degner curve in the morning free practice session. *AP