After another triumph at the Russian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton has stretched his lead at the top of the drivers table to 50 points over Sebastian Vettel. He was in great form on Friday as he finished fastest in both practice sessions for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Drivers – 306 Lewis Hamilton 256 Sebastian Vettel
Constructors – 495 Mercedes 452 Ferrari
Points earned in last three races – 75 Lewis Hamilton 45 Valtteri Bottas 42 Sebastian Vettel
First Practice Session
Another impressive day for Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes team began with the championship leader quickest in first practice 0.446 seconds ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas though no team orders were required though he was using softer tyres than Bottas when setting his best time. Daniel Ricciardo was in third place but 0.682 seconds behind Hamilton.
The session didn’t entirely run smoothly for the British driver as he had to avoid the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly who was going slowly on the racing line at the chicane causing Hamilton to head into the escape road to avoid a collision. Gasly was later reprimanded by the stewards.
The two Ferrari’s finished fourth and fifth fastest and it was Kimi Raikkonen who was ahead of Sebastian Vettel by 0.058 seconds and the German was 0.994 seconds off the pace. Considering his Ferrari was using the fastest super-soft tyres it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the weekend.
The other Red Bull of Max Verstappen was sixth fastest followed by Esteban Ocon and Romain Grosjean. Ninth was Charles Leclerc in his first session at Suzuka and he was 0.144 seconds ahead of team-mate Marcus Ericsson in tenth.
Not such a great session for Fernando Alonso whose McLaren went off at the Degner One corner. His outside wheels ended up on the grass and he headed off into the gravel trap and spun. He was able to get back on the track though but was 18th fastest. Lando Norris had another session in the other McLaren but finished 20th and last just short of four seconds off the pace.
It was more good news for Lewis Hamilton as he was fastest in the second session with another Mercedes 1-2. He was 0.461 seconds clear of Bottas and 0.833 seconds ahead of third quickest Sebastian Vettel. The supremacy of the Mercedes over Ferrari was illustrated by the fact the defending world champion was faster on the soft tyre than Vettel was on the fastest super-soft. It doesn’t look as if that gap at the top is going to narrow this weekend, more the opposite really. That’s looking more and more likely as Lewis had a big advantage over Ferrari in the race-simulation runs with a 0.7 second gap between him and Vettel.
Max Verstappen was a second off the pace in fourth with Kimi Raikkonen in fifth, nearly half a second behind his team-mate. Sixth fastest was Daniel Ricciardo with Estaban Ocon in seventh with Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson eighth and ninth and the Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley completing the top ten. Not such a good session for Charles Leclerc who was down in 15th. McLaren were 17th (Alonso) and 20th (Vandoorne) but not using super-soft tyres as each driver only has four sets, three fewer than other teams.
Not surprisingly, Hamilton was in a good mood saying over the radio: “This track is awesome. I’m having the best day.” It’ll be even better on Sunday if he can win his fourth consecutive Grand Prix and his sixth In the last seven. The big gap between Mercedes and Ferrari is surprising though and it’ll be interesting to see what happens on the more important Saturday and Sunday. Ferrari did report that both cars had blistered tyres on their long runs and Vettel said, “we were sliding a little bit too much.”
I’ll be back tomorrow with a report on the final practice session and qualifying. Till then, enjoy your racing.
By Steve Ashfield for Pillow Motor Sport