Jenson Button showed that he was determined to do his bit to keep the F1 title race alive by topping the timesheets in both Friday practice sessions today in Japan.
The 2009 world champion finished the day 0.174 seconds faster than Fernando Alonso around the famous Suzuka circuit whilst world champion-elect Sebastian Vettel was the third fastest.
Button remains the only driver with a mathematical chance of winning the 2011 title, although he must win each of the remaining five races this season and hope that Vettel fails to pick up a single point.
“It's always fun driving around Suzuka, particularly when you have a good car beneath you,” said the Brit, looking back on his day. “This is an amazing circuit – the first sector is phenomenal; there is no rest, I don't think you breathe through that whole sector. It's all about getting it together and finding a balance that lets you flow through there.
“And the car feels good around here. I don't really know what to take from today in terms of where we stand, but the car feels pretty good. We tried a couple of different fuel-loads: on heavier fuel, the car feels okay through the high-speed changes of direction, although there are still some areas to improve – particularly in the long runs.
“The important thing for us is to get the car sorted and ready to challenge for victory.
“My crash helmet for this weekend features the Japanese flag and the words 'JB' and 'Jenson' in Japanese on the sides and the back. It's similar to the helmet I wore in Monaco, and I'll be auctioning it off after the race to raise money for the people who've been affected by the earthquakes and tsunami here in Japan.”
McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton finished the day down in eighth, although he was second fastest in the morning session.
“Suzuka is a fantastic track to drive, especially when the weather's as beautiful as today,” he said.
“Looking at the times, I think Red Bull typically carries less fuel than us during Friday's long-run practices – that's often been the case throughout the year – and we're often closer in the races. I think our long-run pace, particularly on Jenson's car, looks good: I think we've got a good chance of being very competitive. Also, our pace over a single lap also looks very good.
“Actually, I think looking after the tyres during the race will be the biggest challenge, because degradation could be a slight issue for the teams.”
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh is hopeful that, based on the performance today, McLaren may be able to prevent Red Bull from taking pole position at Suzuka tomorrow, ending their season-long qualifying streak.
“It's always encouraging to end the day fastest, and Jenson really underlined our pace by heading up both of today's free practice sessions,” said Whitmarsh. “We've made a number of small changes to the cars for Japan and we're encouraged by the results – not just for this weekend, but as the foundation for development at future races.
“Lewis wasn't able to capitalise on the softer rubber when his tyres were at their optimum due to several yellow-flag sectors during P2, but, nevertheless, he's still encouraged by the pace of the car over both a single flying-lap and a long-run.
“It's always hard to make accurate assessments of other teams' pace on higher fuel-loads, but we've been very focused on our own programme and feel comfortable with our pace given the fuel we were carrying. Obviously, that belief will be borne out tomorrow in qualifying and we hope that our predictions prove to be accurate.”