Mercedes fastest in Japan as Typhoon Hagibis postpones qualifying

Valtteri Bottas on track in his Mercede

Valtteri Bottas has pipped teammate Lewis Hamilton to the fastest time of Friday practice in what could become the qualifying order for the typhoon-affected Japanese Grand Prix.

Formula One made the decision on Friday to cancel all Saturday sessions due to Typhoon Hagibis “in the interest of safety for the spectators, competitors and everyone at the Suzuka Circuit”.

Qualifying will be held at 10:00am local time on Sunday morning before the race takes place as previously scheduled at 2:10pm. Free practice three will not be reinstated.

Hagibis, which is 1400 kilometres wide and the most powerful tropical storm of the season, is expected to make landfall east of the circuit on Saturday.

The typhoon is forecast to generate up to 1000 millimetres of rain and waves up to 13 metres in the Mie prefecture, where the Suzuka Circuit is located just six kilometres from the sea.

The rain is forecast to subside in the early hours of Sunday, but because the wind may not ease in time for qualifying to take place later that morning, the FIA notified teams that Friday practice would be used to form the grid.

Free practice two therefore became a hybrid session of data-gathering and hot laps, with teams turning up their engines more than they usually would on Friday to bank a good starting position if Sunday qualifying were to be written off.

Ferrari initially set the pace, with Sebastian Vettel leading the way, but Mercedes gradually came to the fore. Hamilton topped the time sheet in the middle of the session, but a final flurry of fast laps enabled Bottas to seize the advantage by a tenth of a second, Mercedes controlling the top two spots.

Max Verstappen showed well for Red Bull Racing at engine partner Honda’s home race. Equipped with a new formulation of fuel, he ended the day just 0.281 seconds behind Bottas and ahead of both Ferrari drivers.

The Scuderia was the only team among the three frontrunning teams to attempt a final flying lap in the final minutes of the afternoon, but only Charles Leclerc managed to improve, beating teammate Vettel to fifth and putting his car 0.356 seconds off the pace.

Thai driver Alex Albon qualified sixth in the sister Red Bull Racing car, 0.617 seconds behind Bottas’s headline time.

Carlos Sainz led the midfield for McLaren in seventh, the MCL34 typically at home around the kind of high-speed corners that characterise the Suzuka Circuit. But the team will be run close but Racing Point and Toro Rosso, who had Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly respectively separate Sainz from teammate Lando Norris in 10th.

Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean the best-placed drivers for Alfa Romeo and Haas respectively, finishing the day 11th and 13th, while midfield rival Renault endured a dire afternoon, with Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg ending 17th and 18th.

Renault is operating with a new front wing in Japan aimed at continuing its upward trajectory of performance at high-speed circuits, its principal weakness this year, but the French team struggled all day, finishing outside the top 10 in the morning practice session and plummeting to second last of all teams by the end of the afternoon.

Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg have qualified in the top 10 at every race since the midseason break and will surely be hoping qualifying goes ahead as planned on Sunday morning to give the team a chance to recover.

Williams was slowest of all, with Robert Kubica leading George Russell, which may represent the first time the Pole has ‘qualified’ ahead of the Briton this season qualifying is cancelled.