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Japanese GP qualifying called off

BAR's Takuma Sato attempts to drive through the rain at Suzuka

SUZUKA, Japan -- Qualifying for Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix has been postponed to the morning of the race due to a typhoon and torrential rain.

Formula One officials announced the rescheduling on Friday after extreme conditions caused havoc during free practice at Suzuka.

Typhoon "Ma-on" is forecast to bring winds of up to 180kph to central Japan this weekend.

The threat prompted race organisers to take the unprecedented step of postponing qualifying and closing down the circuit on Saturday.

"Given the extreme weather forecast, stewards have cancelled all sessions scheduled to take place on Saturday," Formula One's governing FIA said in a statement. Qualifying will now take place three and a half hours before the start of the 53 lap race.

Ferrari's Michael Schumacher was quickest in both of Friday's sessions, though the world champion survived a spin and several drivers skidded off the track.

"Initially when we started it was tricky -- just on the limit," said Schumacher. "At the end it was impossible to drive."

Suzuka should escape the worst of the typhoon on Sunday though rain is still forecast for race day.

The Japanese Grand Prix was hit by bad weather in 1994 when the race was stopped because of rain after 13 laps and later restarted.

Schumacher, who has won at Suzuka five times, expressed relief that he has already wrapped up his seventh world title.

"We are lucky the championship is already decided because imagine if you have to fight and you have to think about the conditions," said the German. "That would be very tense. As it is now, it's fairly relaxing. I can take it as it comes."

BAR rival Jenson Button described the conditions as "silly" after cutting short his afternoon practice session as the rain got worse.

"When you are aqua-planing on the straight, it's far too dangerous," said the Briton. "Every corner you get to you are on a knife's just way too wet.

"It is silly. A road car would probably be as quick as us in these conditions."

While it was the first time qualifying has been moved to the morning of the race, previous grands prix have suffered postponements.

The 1995 Pacific Grand Prix at Japan's Aida circuit was rescheduled from April to October after an earthquake hit the region.

Ten years before that, the June 1985 Belgian Grand Prix was called off the night before the event after drivers protested about the dangerous condition of the disintegrating track surface. It was rescheduled and held in September.

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