The momentum in the F1 championship is now well and truly with Mercedes; a huge gap of eight tenths of a second separated title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, with the Briton seemingly in ruthless form at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix weekend.
At this early stage in proceedings, Ferrari appear to have a lot of work to do to prevent the race in Suzuka being a competition between only the Silver Arrows, with the reigning champions topping Friday practice.
Lewis Hamilton’s best time on the ‘middle’ tyre compound – the soft tyre – was 1:28.911, a time which was only bettered by Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas’ run on the supersoft tyres.
As the last of the front-runners to set a time on the fastest available compound, Hamilton then registered a 1:28.217 to top the session by almost half-a-second, a full eight tenths faster than third-placed Vettel, who struggled with tyre blistering on the long runs, along with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen.
“Today I think we were probably both of us sliding a bit too much, and therefore damaging the tyres a bit more than others,” admitted after practice Vettel. “But I think overall, it has been okay
“It has been a clean Friday. No interruptions, no issue with the car or anything, so I think we could focus on our work and now we try to obviously squeeze out everything that is left in the car for tomorrow.”
Second-placed Bottas would likely have been closer to fastest time, but his opening run on the supersoft tyres was compromised when he ran wide at the second Degner corner.
With Ferrari believed to be running their power units in a more ‘conservative’ mode, they were closer to Red Bull than they were to Mercedes.
Max Verstappen finished fourth fastest for Red Bull ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who was trailing the ‘spec C’ Renault power unit once again. Around half-a-second covered third to sixth.
Mercedes seemed to also have the upper hand in the race simulations, too.
Whilst the race programmes for Hamilton and Bottas were yielding times in the 1:34s, the pace of the Ferraris and Red Bulls was no better than the low-1:35s.
Racing Point Force India’s Esteban Ocon – who had a very strong race here last year – appeared to be in a class of his own as he broke clear of the ‘class B’ battle by over four tenths of a second.
He finished clear of Haas’ Romain Grosjean, who finished the day in eighth place, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson and Brendon Hartley, who showed strong pace in the only fully-functional Toro Rosso.
His team-mate Pierre Gasly spent the vast majority of the session in the pits with a complicated fuel issue and only ventured out of the pits with around fifteen minutes to go. He hurried a qualifying simulation and a short race simulation, but completed only ten laps in FP2 in preparation for Honda’s home event.
The opening session wasn’t much smoother for Gasly; the Frenchman had an off at turn five – collecting a lot of grass cuttings in the process – and, in a separate incident, was given a reprimand by the stewards for driving unnecessarily slowly on the approach to the chicane at the end of the lap.
In doing so, a full-pace Hamilton was caught off-guard and had to take evasive action by taking the inside line, which caused him to lock up and miss the chicane altogether.
The opening session also brought a rare mistake for Fernando Alonso, who ended up in the gravel trap.
On the approach to the first Degner corner, the McLaren driver touched the edge of the grass with his left wheels and lost control of the car. He went off into the gravel but kept the car out of barrier and recovered to the pits.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, Free Practice
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m28.217s – 31 Laps
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1m28.678s 0.461s 30
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m29.050s 0.833s 36
4 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault 1m29.257s 1.040s 32
5 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m29.498s 1.281s 33
6 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault 1m29.513s 1.296s 27
7 Esteban Ocon Force India/Mercedes 1m30.035s 1.818s 32
8 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 1m30.440s 2.223s 32
9 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 1m30.478s 2.261s 33
10 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso/Honda 1m30.502s 2.285s 27
11 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 1m30.510s 2.293s 28
12 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1m30.644s 2.427s 36
13 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso/Honda 1m30.795s 2.578s 10
14 Carlos Sainz Renault 1m30.904s 2.687s 31
15 Charles Leclerc Sauber/Ferrari 1m30.906s 2.689s 26
16 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari 1m30.956s 2.739s 25
17 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Renault 1m30.988s 2.771s 34
18 Sergey Sirotkin Williams/Mercedes 1m31.087s 2.870s 39
19 Lance Stroll Williams/Mercedes 1m31.215s 2.998s 32
20 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren/Renault 1m31.981s 3.764s 32
By: Luke Murphy
All images: Motorsport Images
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