Suzuka, Japan, Oct 11 (AFP/APP): Valtteri Bottas was quickest Friday in practice before the Japanese Grand Prix locked down ahead of an approaching super typhoon, finishing a tenth of a second ahead of teammate and world championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
The Mercedes pair, benefiting in Japan from an aerodynamic upgrade package to their W10 cars, were comfortably ahead of the third-fastest Red Bull of Max Verstappen in the second session of the condensed racing weekend at Suzuka.
“It was a very positive day,” said Bottas. “We tried the new bits with the car. It felt good since the beginning.”
Just before the first session began on Friday morning, race organisers announced that the entire Saturday track programme, including qualifying, had been scrapped for safety reasons in the face of the approaching Super Typhoon Hagibis.
Qualifying was rescheduled to 10am (0100 GMT) Sunday, with the race still taking place at 2:10pm (0510 GMT) as originally planned, providing the weather improves.
“(We) still need to remember it’s only practice, Sunday is still going to be close with qualifying and the race,” Bottas said.
The Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, who had dominated practice and qualifying at the previous four grands prix since the summer break, could only trail in fourth and fifth after failing to record a clean lap on the fastest soft tyres.
The loss of Saturday’s timetable added extra spice with only Friday’s two practice sessions available to prepare the cars for qualifying.
And should bad weather linger on Sunday morning and prevent the qualifying session taking place, the governing body FIA confirmed that the timings from Friday’s second practice will be used to determine the starting grid.
That would leave Mercedes sitting pretty with a front-row lockout as they look to secure the one-two finish they need to clinch a record sixth successive constructors championship.
Finland’s Bottas recovered from a mid-session spin on the final bend to lap the 5.807-kilometre circuit in 1min 27.8785sec, 0.100sec ahead of Britain’s Hamilton.
– Local hero –
Verstappen of the Netherlands was third on 1:28.066 in his Red Bull, 0.281sec slower than Bottas, with Monaco’s Leclerc was fourth on 1:28.141 and Vettel fifth on 1:28.376.
“Mercedes are looking very strong, which is no surprise on this track,” Verstappen told reporters. “But we made a good recovery from this morning.
“I’m not worried about doing qualifying and the race on Sunday as it won’t affect my approach. We can’t change the weather and it’s out of our control, so now we just have to see what happens on Sunday.”
It was a timely riposte by Mercedes to the resurgent Ferrari team who had dominated practice and qualifying since the summer break.
A win for Hamilton on Sunday would leave only Bottas, who lies 73 points behind, able to catch him in the drivers’ standings with just four races to come after Japan.
It would also put the Englishman in line to wrap up a sixth drivers’ title, a feat only previously achieved by Michael Schumacher, and third world title in a row at Mexico later this month.
The fanatical Japanese spectators, left reeling from the news of a blank Saturday, were given something to cheer on Friday morning as local hero Naoki Yamamoto made his Formula One debut, replacing Pierre Gasly in the Toro Rosso for the practice session.
The 31-year-old reigning champion in Japan’s Super Formula and Super GT series completed 30 laps — more than any other driver in the session — and finished 17th fastest.