Lewis Hamilton topped both the Friday free practice sessions of the 2018 Japanese weekend. The Mercedes duo were separated by a 0.4 second gap in both sessions. Daniel Ricciardo was third fastest in the first practice session while Sebastian Vettel occupied that spot in the second session.
Raikkonen was fourth fastest in the first session while in the second session he was sixth fastest. Vettel was fifth fastest in the first session and third by the final session of the day. Max Verstappen was sixth fastest in the morning session and surged to fourth fastest by the afternoon session, while his Australian team-mate was sixth fastest by the second session.
Force India’s Esteban Ocon remained seventh fastest in the ‘best of the rest’ spot leading the mid-field pack through both the sessions. He was followed by fellow Frenchman and Haas driver, Romain Grosjean who was also consistent with the eighth fastest time in both sessions.
The Sauber drivers Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson occupied the final two spots in the top 10, with ninth and tenth fastest time in the morning session. However, by noon, only the Swede was able to make into the top 10 with the ninth fastest time and was followed by Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley wight he tenth fastest time.
While the Mercedes drivers dominated both sessions, the Ferrari drivers masked their sprint and long-run pace in both sessions. The 0.4 second gap between the two Mercedes is possibly where one can slot at least one of the Ferraris if not both. Speculation has been rife over the drop-in pace of the Maranello cars post Sochi, however it is been speculated that the team have been turning down their engines to power saving mode for the Friday practice sessions since the Singapore GP. Therefore, both sessions have not been much of an indicator of their true pace in both sprint and qualifying mode.
The average lap times of the top six drivers on two compounds were as follows:
|Hamilton||1: 34.210 (5 Laps)||1: 33.455 (5 laps)|
|Bottas||1: 34.904 (5 laps)||1: 34.018 (4 laps)|
|Vettel||1: 34.816 (5 laps)||1: 33.770 (5 laps)|
|Raikkonen||NA||1: 34.783 (5 laps)|
|Verstappen||1: 34.986 (5 laps)||1: 34.136 (5 laps)|
|Ricciardo||1: 33.773 (5 laps)||NA|
*None of the drivers attempt race simulations on the medium compound tyre
In the race simulation sessions in FP2, the top six were seen carrying out most of their work on the soft and supersoft compound. However, there could be a forecast of rain showers during the race, which means use of the intermediate or full wet tyres. Hamilton’s pace on the soft compound was the benchmark for the session and it was consistent in the 1 minute 33 second bracket. Vettel’s pace on the soft tyre did match Hamilton’s, but with Ferrari in engine saving mode, it is difficult to see where they fit in the pecking order this time. The German did clock a few similar laps in the 1:33 second bracket however they were not as consistent as the reigning World Champion’s. Around Suzuka brake temperatures are never a problem, however tyre wear and tear can be an issue, due to the abrasive asphalt at this circuit. Raikkonen’s soft tyre had huge tread towards the end of the session since he was the driver who did the maximum race simulations on the compound.
Hamilton is about 0.315 seconds quicker than Vettel on the soft compound, according to the law of averages. However, one can expect the Ferrari to be quicker or close during the race, since their engine saving mode on Fridays. On the supersoft compounds, Ricciardo was the quickest with his average best race pace over five laps clocked at 1: 33.773, which is 0.437 seconds quicker than Hamilton’s average on the same compound. Therefore, the session was misleading when it comes to the pecking order in terms of race pace. One would still place Ferrari as second best there or on par with Hamilton’s Mercedes. The Briton’s team-mate however has inconsistent runs on both tyre compounds, almost seven tenths of a second slower on the supersoft compound and six tenths of a second slower than on the soft compound.
Ideally Vettel should split the two Mercedes in the qualifying and race. However, it is still difficult to predict whether he could beat Hamilton around a circuit which clearly suits both the Briton’s driving style and car. The only conditions that could change the outcome of the race would be a first lap carnage, off-track incidents at the Degner straight or if there is a downpour or some mixed grip levels on the tarmac. The Suzuka circuit is not only challenging for the driver but also the engineers and technical department of the team. Therefore, for a driver to string the perfect lap or have the best race at this circuit it is going to require a combination of great skill and the appropriate tools.