Jenson Button and McLaren made the perfect start to the on-track action at Suzuka by setting the fastest time during first practice for the Japanese Grand Prix. Button’s victory hopes took a blow earlier this week when it was revealed he would take a five place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change but the Briton got straight down to business on Friday morning, outpacing teammate Lewis Hamilton by a quarter of a second.
The unsettled weather of previous Japanese Grand Prix weekends has stayed away so far and Hamilton was first to light up the timing screens, going fastest on a 1:34.910, the kind of time the HRTs could only dream of as they shared the track with him.
It wasn’t until the other big hitters took the circuit that Hamilton’s time faced any real competition with Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean straight into the 1:35s. Along with the occasional headline lap time, Grosjean was providing the main entertainment of the morning with several slides, including a near-spin on the approach to the turn 11 hairpin when he edged on the grass.
After a couple of sighters, Webber joined Hamilton in the 1:34s with a lap five hundredths faster than the McLaren but the other MP4-27 was still sitting in the garage as Jenson Button waited for his first extended run of the morning. That finally came with almost an hour gone and his first lap was immediately good enough for fifth before a 1:34.507 second time around gave him top spot by three tenths from Webber’s Red Bull.
Hamilton improved himself with half an hour remaining to take second but the hard tyres were no longer in peak condition. Lewis was fastest of all in the final sector but couldn’t match his teammate through the Esses, explaining the two-tenth difference. Webber held onto third ahead of Nico Rosberg with the Mercedes ending the session parked on the side of the road at turn three after a technical problem.
Michael Schumacher made a bright start to his final Suzuka weekend with fifth place while home favourite Kamui Kobayashi finished a competitive sixth. Felipe Massa ended the morning as the leading Ferrari driver in seventh with Force India duo Paul Di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg, the two men rumoured to be chasing his seat at the Scuderia, hot on his heels in eighth and ninth.
Pastor Maldonado rounded out the top ten for Williams ahead of championship leader Fernando Alonso, one of several drivers to take an alternative route through the Casio Triangle chicane, Sergio Perez and the two Lotuses of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.
Sebastian Vettel made a quiet start to the weekend with seventeenth in FP1, behind the two Toro Rossos, while Caterham, Marussia and HRT accounted for the bottom six positions, Timo Glock being the quickest of them despite coming dangerously close to crashing at the Degner curves.