x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Torrential rain sends qualifiers down drain

Qualifying session rescheduled for today and drivers feel for spectators at Suzuka as only a handful of free practice laps are possible.

Sebastian Vettel, centre, leads members of the Red Bull team out to thank the crowd for their patience at Suzuka yesterday.
Sebastian Vettel, centre, leads members of the Red Bull team out to thank the crowd for their patience at Suzuka yesterday.

SUZUKA, JAPAN // In the Virgin garage, drivers Timo Glock and Lucas di Grassi played cards. Outside, Toro Rosso's mechanics used assorted bits of detritus to make small boats and launched them into a torrent of water that had coursed through the pit lane since mid-morning.

A handful of free practice laps apart, Suzuka was a haven only for play yesterday as torrential rain prevented Formula One teams attempting to qualify for today's Japanese Grand Prix. 

If all goes to plan, the grid order will be settled during a rescheduled session today at 10am local time (5am UAE time), ahead of the race start at 3pm (10am UAE time). 

If it is not possible to stage qualifying, the race stewards may use alternative means - world championship order, for instance - to determine the starting order, but meritocracy is expected to prevail over discretion.

More rain is forecast, but the showers are expected to be lighter and intermittent rather than torrential. It might even be dry by the afternoon, but there are almost as many different weather forecasts as there are F1 teams. As expected, the Red Bull-Renault drivers had a clear edge during Friday's free practice. Sebastian Vettel was slightly faster than his world championship-leading teammate Mark Webber in both sessions, with Robert Kubica third for Renault.

The Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were next up in the quicker afternoon session, ahead of Jenson Button's McLaren-Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton, Button's teammate, did not manage many laps after crashing during Friday morning's first practice. Hamilton's problems have increased with the news that he has been given a five-place grid penalty after McLaren chose to change his gearbox as a precaution following concern over rising oil pressures.

"The decision to cancel qualifying was absolutely right because there was too much standing water," Vettel said. "The people who deserve most sympathy, though, are the spectators who have sat patiently all day waiting for something to happen." Kamui Kobayashi, the local favourite, added: "I feel for the fans who have hardly seen a car all day, but safety has to come first and it simply wasn't possible to drive in these conditions."

Bridgestone's wet-weather F1 tyres are capable of dispersing 61 litres of water per second, but it was too wet even for those. The Japanese GP is no stranger to weather disruption. It has been an occasional feature ever since the Fuji Speedway hosted the nation's first Formula One world championship race in 1976. That was the year of the classic title contest between the Englishman James Hunt and Niki Lauda - and the conditions were so bad that the Austrian parked his Ferrari after a couple of laps, a decision fuelled by a fresh and acute understanding of life's meaning.

Earlier in the campaign, a fiery accident during the German GP left Lauda fighting for his life and his subsequent comeback, six weeks after he had been read the last rites, remains one of the most remarkable motorsport stories of all time. His withdrawal left Hunt needing to finish third or better to take the world title, which the McLaren driver did with third place. Fuji hosted the Japanese GP in 1977, too, but the event did not subsequently return there until 2007, when conditions were even worse than those 31 years beforehand and the race's first 19 laps took place behind the safety car, which almost ran out of fuel as it stayed out so long.

Suzuka, the event's present and most regular home, has by no means been immune to chaos. The 1994 Japanese Grand Prix had to be stopped and restarted because of monsoon-style rain, with Damon Hill being declared winner on aggregate. Ten years later, officials took an early decision to abandon Saturday running in the face of a threatened typhoon that never materialised. Then as now, qualifying was rescheduled for Sunday.

The situation creates a potential headache for the five title contenders. If conditions are dry today the teams will have to weigh the expected performance advantage of the softer Bridgestone tyre against its likely fragility on a circuit that has been thoroughly cleaned by rain.