Nico Rosberg topped the second practice session for the Japanese Grand Prix ahead of his Mercedes Formula 1 teammate Lewis Hamilton, as circumstances stopped Red Bull showing its hand on the soft tyres.
Rosberg, who was also fastest in the day’s earlier FP1 session, set his best time of 1m32.250s on the soft tyres just over a third of the way into the 90-minute session.
Pirelli has brought its soft, medium and hard compound rubber to Suzuka and the early indication is that there is not much difference between the harder two sets.
But when the drivers switched to the soft tyres for their qualifying simulations, they found a significant chunk of time.
Sebastian Vettel was the first driver to switch to the softs and he duly went fastest, 0.8s quicker than his previous best on the hards.
Rosberg was the first Mercedes driver to move on the soft compound tyre and he put in his fastest time shortly after Kimi Raikkonen had beaten Vettel’s lap.
Hamilton, who had been quickest during the early running on the harder rubber, began his soft tyre run just after his teammate had finished his. The world champion was fastest in the first sector but he faded as the lap went on and ended up second, 0.072s adrift of Rosberg.
Raikkonen finished the session in third place – the 2007 went off at the Hairpin during the race simulation running, shortly after telling his Ferrari team he was having understeer problems that felt like he was “missing the front wing”.
Max Verstappen was fourth but his soft tyre run was disrupted by Esteban Gutierrez’s stricken Haas F1 car, which had stopped at the Dunlop Curve and caused race control to neutralise the session with the virtual safety car.
Verstappen did go for another run when the session resumed but he felt there was “no grip there, the tyres were too cold” and ended up 0.8s behind Rosberg. In the other Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo did not complete a qualifying simulation run due to the disruption and finished the session down in 12th place on the timesheets as a result.
During the long runs, Hamilton was very consistent in the 1m37-38s range on the soft tyre, with Rosberg putting in a similar performance but going slightly slower.
Despite Raikkonen’s protestations at the understeer he encountered during his long run on the medium tyres he was quick using it nevertheless, a week after Ferrari avoided that compound in Malaysia. But the cooler temperatures in Suzuka mean the white-walled tyre is much better suited to the conditions.
The Red Bull drivers put in delta times that had a smaller gap between their low fuel laps (Ricciardo completed two thirds of a flying effort before the VSC came out) and race laptimes, which indicates the team is either holding something back for qualifying or its drivers used less fuel during the longer running.
The gap between the medium and soft tyres is 1.2s, which is too big for drivers to try and get through Q2 to start the race on the mediums. Ideally they would not like to start the race on the softs, but with that in mind, a short first stint and a three-stop strategy on Sunday is likely.
The hard-to-soft delta is only 1.5s, which means the hard tyre looks quite competitive for the race. Last year, the field was pretty evenly split between the medium and hard tyres regarding which one the drivers preferred as the race tyre.
Speaking after the session, Rosber said: “It’s been a case of finding my way today. It began with quite a lot of under-steer and we had to work through the setup in order to find a better balance on the car. In the afternoon, the medium tyre didn’t seem as strong as the hard as we saw in Malaysia. However, on the soft tyre we showed good one-lap pace, the balance felt good and the track was really exciting to drive. It looks like we’re ahead of the Ferraris but it remains to be seen as to where we are compared to the Red Bulls.”
Vettel ended the session in fifth, ahead of the Force India pair of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso. Force India is involved in a close scrap with Williams over fourth place in the constructors’ championship and needs to be aware of McLaren’s potential to pick up points, but Perez was faster than Alonso during the race simulations.
Valtteri Bottas was ninth for Williams and Carlos Sainz rounded out the top ten a day after he said that F1 drivers will need to be physically fitter to handle the 2017 cars in the pre-event press conference.
Felipe Massa ended up 11th in the second Williams, ahead of Ricciardo, Romain Grosjean and Daniil Kvyat, who saved a spectacular spin going through the final corner early in the session without going into the barriers.
Kevin Magnussen finished 15th for Renault – the Dane one of a number of drivers to run wide at the Hairpin – with his former teammate Jenson Button 16th in the second McLaren.
Gutierrez was 17th despite only completing 11 laps, with Jolyon Palmer and Felipe Nasr, who had a wild spin at the Spoon Curve late on, 18th and 19th.
Pascal Wehrlein beat his Manor teammate Esteban Ocon to 20th place and Marcus Ericsson brought up the rear of the field for Sauber.
Japanese Grand Prix FP2 results:
1 Nico Rosberg, Mercedes 1m32.250s, 35 laps
2 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes 1m32.322s +0.072s, 35 laps
3 Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari 1m32.573s +0.323s, 26 laps
4 Max Verstappen, Red Bull 1m33.061s +0.811s, 29 laps
5 Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari 1m33.103s +0.853s, 34 laps
6 Sergio Perez, Force India 1m33.570s +1.320s, 37 laps
7 Nico Hulkenberg, Force India 1m33.873s +1.623s, 35 laps
8 Fernando Alonso, McLaren 1m33.985s +1.735s, 37 laps
9 Valtteri Bottas, Williams 1m34.028s +1.778s, 33 laps
10 Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso 1m34.086s +1.836s, 33 laps
11 Felipe Massa, Williams 1m34.127s +1.877s, 33 laps
12 Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull 1m34.150s +1.900s, 29 laps
13 Romain Grosjean, Haas 1m34.241s +1.991s, 33 laps
14 Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso 1m34.305s +2.055s, 27 laps
15 Kevin Magnussen, Renault 1m34.339s +2.089s, 36 laps
16 Jenson Button, McLaren 1m34.398s +2.148s, 29 laps
17 Esteban Gutierrez, Haas 1m34.643s +2.393s, 11 laps
18 Jolyon Palmer, Renault 1m34.760s +2.510s, 40 laps
19 Felipe Nasr, Sauber 1m34.824s +2.574s, 26 laps
20 Pascal Wehrlein, Manor 1m35.292s +3.042s, 30 laps
21 Esteban Ocon, Manor 1m35.400s +3.150s, 37 laps
22 Marcus Ericsson, Sauber 1m36.318s +4.068s, 26 laps
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