Sebastian Vettel finished Friday practice more than 0.8 seconds off the pace set by Lewis Hamilton at the Japanese Grand Prix, but the German still thinks his Ferrari team can turn things around for the rest of the weekend.
Vettel, 50 points down in the title standings, must heavily outscore Hamilton this weekend to keep his title chances within the realm of realistic possibility, but his weekend started on poor terms, with Mercedes comfortably outpacing Ferrari in both sessions and Hamilton in particular making himself untouchable at the top of the time sheet.
The Briton ended FP2 with a time of one minute 28.217 seconds, 0.833 seconds quicker than Vettel’s best effort. More concerning, however, was that Hamilton’s quickest lap in the morning session, set on the soft-compound tyre, was also fast enough to beat Vettel’s fastest time of the day set on supersofts.
The gap is more significant than that between the two manufacturers on Friday in Russia, where Mercedes confidently beat Ferrari in qualifying and had little trouble fending off the Italian squad in the race.
But Vettel refused to buy into the doomsday scenario, instead pointing to good balance in his car as an indication that the weekend could yet be salvaged.
“I was pretty happy, I think it was pretty good,” the German said of his Friday. “I think we can still improve, and in the end we tried something with the car that managed to give us a bit of a better feeling, so let’s see if we can carry that in to tomorrow and find something else.”
Ferrari has taken an aggressive approach to its tyre allocation for Japan, bringing only two sets of the soft compound on 10 sets of the supersofts, presumably in anticipation of running a strong stint on the softer rubber around the demanding Suzuka Circuit.
But even on this count there was cause for worry, with the Scuderia struggling particularly badly with blistering around the notoriously demanding Suzuka Circuit.
The team will lean on its historic strength in turning around poorly performing cars overnight on Friday to make significant steps forward on Saturday, but with the gap so large, the chance of a complete overhaul is unlikely.
“Time will tell,” Vettel said. “We couldn’t do that today, but it doesn’t matter what they do; we look at ourselves and try to get the best from our package.
“I think we know what we were doing and I don’t think we were trying to do something different to other Fridays. We know what the car can do, and we need to focus on that and try to get everything out to put us in the best possible position.
“If we can grasp pole tomorrow, that’s great, but if not, we need to be there just right behind and see what happens.
“It’s a long weekend and today is only Friday. There is a little bit to squeeze out of the car and myself, I’m sure.”
But if Ferrari isn’t able to deliver Vettel a pole-getting car, aggressive strategy could be the only tool remaining in his arsenal to beat the runaway championship leader.
“I think you can always do something; the question is whether it works,” he said. “Obviously you don’t want to commit suicide [strategically], but if we attack, we try to be reasonable.”