Champion-elect Sebastian Vettel set the pace on the first day of practice at Suzuka today, with Mercedes and Lotus well matched in pursuit and hoping to find a way to spring a surprise on him. Vettel finished ahead of team mate Mark Webber and the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg with Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen fourth.
Lewis Hamilton was not able to set a representative time as he had to back off on his qualifying simulation and ended up sixth.
Webber was using a replacement chassis this weekend after the accident and fire in Korea last weekend. His replacement at Red Bull next season, Daniel Ricciardo, showed Toro Rosso’s promise with seventh fastest time.
It was a day of drama with a number of accidents and heavy car damage; Jules Bianchi damaged his car at Degner Curve and was unable to take part in FP2. In the afternoon session Pastor Maldonado crashed at Degner 2 and Sergio Perez had a big accident, going off at high speed in Spoon Curve.
These incidents, early in FP2, meant that their team mates Valterri Bottas and Jenson Button had to do the bulk of the tyre evaluation and data gathering work.
The qualifying simulations came early in FP2, with around an hour to go, because teams wanted as much time as possible to analyse the performance of the softer medium tyre over a first stint race simulation.
In the morning session Hamilton and Rosberg had set the pace, while van der Garde also sustained light damage with an off at Degner.
Fernando Alonso had a spin on his medium tyre run at the first Degner Corner after hitting the inside kerb, but he managed not to hit the barriers. He ended up 10th fastest.
Vettel was on a qualifying simulation run at the time and had to abort, he went again and therefore his time was set on the second lap.
Grosjean had a moment on his qualifying simulation, losing the lap, which had looked likely to take him into the top four but, like Alonso, he managed not to hit anything. He was fifth. Based on recent his qualifying, he might be able to challenge for a front row grid slot on Saturday.
Raikkonen went off in the esses during his race simulation and his Lotus car got beached, so he missed the last 35 minutes of the session. It was the second weekend in a row where Raikkonen has had an incident on Friday. Raikkonen had set the fourth fastest lap time to that point on his qualifying simulation, which was encouraging.
Lotus is one of the teams that is hoping to be able to make the medium tyre last long enough for it to be the favoured race tyre, which could give it a performance advantage over others who will need to race the harder tyre. But it looked like the medium was as little as 0.4s to 0.6s per lap faster than the hard and teams will evaluate this evening how that evens out over a 17-20 lap stint.
The long runs showed Red Bull to be very strong again; Vettel did a 14 lap stint on hard tyres with laps in the high 1m38s and low 1m39s, which looked fast. Rosberg’s medium tyre run of 16 laps also had 1m 38s and 1m39s laps, with the tyres looking like they were holding on well at the end, so quite promising.
It should be an interesting race strategically, with different possibilities. The key for Vettel’s rivals will be to qualify ahead of him and try to prevent him making the early break. With the first sector in Suzuka being so well suited to the Red Bull, if he gets away in the lead it will be very hard for his rivals to get close enough to challenge.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, Friday