Japan GP to decide Friday on moving qualifying as typhoon looms

Toro Rosso's Pierre Gasly signs an autograph for a fan at Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, Japan, on Thursday. — Reuters

SUZUKA, Japan — Japanese Grand Prix organizers will not make any decision to postpone on Saturday qualifying for another 24 hours but pledged that the safety of fans and drivers was their top priority as a massive storm bears down on Japan.

Typhoon Hagibis is classed as "violent" — the equivalent of a category five hurricane — and is currently predicted to make landfall near Tokyo on Saturday.

The latest forecasts for Saturday predict heavy rain and winds gusting in excess of 100 km an hour to batter the Suzuka Circuit, which lies near the Honshu coast about 300 km (180 miles) southwest of the capital.

A Ferrari spokesperson told reporters on Thursday that teams would be informed by the governing body FIA by 6 p.m. local time on Friday (0900 GMT) if qualifying were to be postponed until Sunday.

A Formula One statement issued on Thursday confirmed any decision would be made based on the safety of those at the circuit.

"The FIA, Formula 1, Suzuka Circuit and the Japanese Automobile Federation are closely monitoring Typhoon Hagibis and its potential impact on the 2019 FIA Formula One Japanese Grand Prix," the statement said.

"Every effort is being made to minimize disruption to the Formula 1 timetable, however the safety of the fans, competitors and everyone at the Suzuka Circuit remains the top priority.

"All parties will continue to monitor the situation and provide further updates in due course."

Drivers on Thursday backed changing the weekend timetable. "I don't think anybody wants to put anybody's life in danger," said Ferrari's four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.

"Sometimes forecasts change," added the German driver. "But apparently it's 100 percent so it's quite clear. By tomorrow night they should be able to take a decision.

"The decision is not for us, necessarily, because for us it's nice and easy, cozy, in the garage.

"But for the people out there around the track it is not nice to be sitting there with rain going sideways."

A blank on Saturday would be a huge disappointment to thousands of fanatical supporters at one of the best attended races on the circuit, but other drivers were prepared for the worst.

"I've got my speedboat on standby, so I'm ready," joked Red Bull's Max Verstappen.

"At the moment it doesn't look very likely. So we'll have a bit more free time on Saturday and it means waking up a little bit earlier on Sunday," he added.

With the storm expected to move away rapidly, qualifying could take place early on Sunday morning, something that happened in Japan in 2004 and 2010, with the race as scheduled in the afternoon. But Saturday's third free practice session would be lost.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc said he hoped the FIA would consult the drivers to decide if conditions were safe but thought it "would be pretty clear if we can't drive".

French driver Jules Bianchi crashed in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix after a typhoon. He died of his injuries the following year. — AFP