Lewis Hamilton has laid down a fearsome gauntlet for title rival Sebastian Vettel by setting an untouchable fastest lap during Friday practice at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Mercedes arrived at the historic Suzuka Circuit with its foot on the throat of Ferrari, which has seen the championship hopes of lead driver Sebastian Vettel flounder since the midseason break and which badly needs a win to suspend its rapidly declining form.
But based on Friday practice times Japan is unlikely to be the scene of the Italian team’s first step towards what would now be an unprecedented championship fightback, with Hamilton in a seemingly unbeatable groove around the swooping Suzuka curves.
The title-leading Briton topped both practice sessions, most impressively the afternoon, when his time of 1 minutes 28.217 seconds was 0.833 seconds quicker than third-place Vettel.
Worse was that Hamilton was quicker on the slower soft-compound tyre than Vettel was on the qualifying supersoft compound.
“This track is awesome!” whooped Hamilton to his engineer barley half an hour into the session. “I’m having the best day!”
Valtteri Bottas split the two championship rivals. The Finn was almost half a second slower than Hamilton, albeit after abandoning his first flying lap due to a mistake at the second Degner corner.
The gap to the leading Mercedes team was foreboding for Ferrari, but its proximity to Red Bull Racing will be downright frightening. Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, the driver of the day last weekend in Sochi, was only 0.2 seconds slower than Vettel to finish the second practice session in fourth.
Even so, the Dutchman complained of his RB14 behaving like a “rallycross” car, and adjustments from the garage seemed unable to ameliorate his concerns.
Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo were 0.2 seconds behind Verstappen to finish fifth and sixth.
But whereas the picture at the front of the field appears bleak, the midfield looks colourful and closely contested, with four different teams completing the top 10 at the end of Friday.
Esteban Ocon, still without a drive for 2019, was the quickest among his ‘class-B’ rivals in seventh place for Force India with an impressive lap just 1.8 seconds slower than Hamilton’s headline time.
His efforts won him a 0.4-second gap to Haas’s Romain Grosjean, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley and Force India teammate Sergio Perez, who were classified in places eight to 11 respectively.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg finished the day in 12th after lamenting on Thursday that his team had fallen behind in the development race after finishing out of the points in Russia last weekend, and his practice times suggest the French marque is set for another difficult weekend.
Pierre Gasly followed in 13th for Toro Rosso ahead of Carlos Sainz, Charles Leclerc and Kevin Magnussen at the tail of the midfield.
The back of the grid will be contested by former British giants McLaren and Williams. Fernando Alonso ended the day 17th, leading Williams partners Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll and McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne.