Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas made it a Mercedes one-two in both of Friday’s practice sessions for the Japanese Grand Prix. In FP1, Hamilton was four tenths faster than Bottas, while Daniel Ricciardo was half a second off.
In FP2, Hamilton and Bottas continued to set the pace, but the advantage grew to eight tenths over the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton surprised by the gap
Lewis Hamilton says that he was surprised by the gap between his Mercedes team and the rest of the field in practice. The four times champion lead the pack by some margin over both Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s, as well as leading Valtteri Bottas by just under half a second.
Meanwhile, his championship rival Sebastian Vettel was third fastest eight tenths off the pace. When asked if he was expecting such an advantage over his main rivals in Friday practice sessions, he said “definitely not.”
He told ESPN “I didn’t know where we were going to stand alongside the Red Bulls and Ferraris. The Red Bulls were really quick here last year and naturally so, the Ferraris. I just came here with the mindset of I know where I’ve got to get the car, I know there’s always areas to improve.”
“There’s two or three corners where I know I need to kill it this weekend and I got straight onto it. Straight away I was much, much better than I’ve ever been through those particular corners.” Hamilton says that the balance of his Mercedes was in quite a nice place.
During FP2 when he went fastest, he told his team “this track is awesome; I’m having the best day”. Naturally, Hamilton was asked after his session what makes a confident flying lap around Suzuka so enjoyable. “They don’t make tracks like this anymore. It has to be one of my favourite circuits, if not the favourite,” Hamilton said.
“With these new cars we are much faster than we were last year so just every time you come here the cars are getting faster and faster, the track is just incredible.
Vettel plans to go aggressive
Sebastian Vettel says that he is planning to go aggressive with his race strategy for Sunday’s race, but says that Ferrari will not use still tactics to try and win what has been seen as a must win race.
Vettel’s hopes of winning a fifth title and his first with Ferrari, appear to have fallen away after falling fifty points behind following Sunday’s race in Sochi.
It appears that the pace advantage that Ferrari had in the first half of the season has been lost to Mercedes, meaning that the team has tried unsuccessfully to use race strategy to try and leapfrog Mercedes. Vettel managed to put 19 laps on the super-soft tyre in second practice at Suzuka, but his race pace did not appear to be as strong as Hamilton’s.
Asked if they were looking to use an aggressive strategy, Vettel told ESPN “I think you can always do something [unusual with strategy], the question is whether it works. Obviously, you don’t want to commit suicide, but if we attack we try to be reasonable. I think it’s a long race.”
“Today I think, both of us, sliding a bit too much therefore damaging the tyres a bit more than others but I think overall it’s been OK. It’s been a clean Friday, no interruptions, no issues with the car or anything.”
Given the teams’ deficit of .833, Vettel was not confident about securing pole position on Saturday. However, he said it would not be a disaster if he starts behind his championship rival.
Ferrari blames tyre deg for pace woes
Ferrari’s hopes of fighting Mercedes this weekend are continuing to slide as Sebastian Vettel was significantly slower in both practice sessions. In FP1 Vettel could only manage fourth partly down to traffic and there wasn’t the performance from the car, finishing the session nine tenths off Mercedes, but only was a tenth faster in FP2.
Vettel says that he believes that the reason his Ferrari team are so far off the pace was that they were struggling with tyre deg, and admitted tyres where sliding too much. The German said “Today I think we were probably both of us sliding a bit too much, and therefore damaging the tyres a bit more than others. But I think overall, it has been okay.”
“It has been a clean Friday. No interruptions, no issue with the car or anything, so I think we could focus on our work and now we try to obviously squeeze out everything that is left in the car for tomorrow.”
However, Vettel still feels that there was room for improvement but refused to make any bold predictions about the rest of the weekend. Vettel was clear, however, that Ferrari would not try to do anything too stupid in desperation to beat Mercedes.
Asked about options to be aggressive, he said: “You can always do something. The question is whether it works. Obviously, you don’t want to commit suicide. If we attack we still try to be reasonable. It is a long race.”
Verstappen calls Friday “one of the worst”
Max Verstappen has labelled Friday as “one of the worst this season” after struggling during practice all day in his Red Bull for confidence and grip.
The Dutchman was four tenths off his teammate in FP1, but while he improved his pace to Hamilton going fourth in FP2 he remained a second off Hamilton. At one point in the session, he told the team that he thought he was competing in “rallycross” after his car was seen sliding through the Esses.
He told the media “[It was] one of the worst this season in terms of feeling in the car. No grip and around here you need to be confident in how you attack the corners. Today there was not one lap when I felt good in the car.”
For the past two seasons, Verstappen has finished second. But his confidence was still down despite edging ahead of his teammate Daniel Ricciardo in FP2.
Ricciardo, meanwhile, wasn’t as downbeat with his Friday in Suzuka despite hitting traffic on his best flying lap attempt in FP2. He said “I don’t think I was as unhappy as him. We had different downforce, he tried less wing, I tried bigger. On one lap there’s probably not that much difference with the wing, but in the longer run seemed like I was more happy and consistent.”
Teams face a high level of tyre deg
Teams are facing higher levels of tyre wear at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix because recent typhoons have changed the roughness of the Suzuka circuit.
Tyre supplier Pirelli believes that recent typhoons in the region have swept away any rubber from other track activities, and that has had an impact on grip and wear.
Speaking after the first day of practice in Japan, where Ferrari’s tyre blistering was one of the main talking points, Pirelli’s racing chief Mario Isola said that there had been a big change in the track surface.
“In terms of asphalt roughness, we have quite a big step in macro-roughness. This is probably due to the weather conditions, because it looks like the heavy rain with the typhoons changed the asphalt. So, this is affecting mainly the grip and wear – increasing the wear.”
Although Ferrari had the most noticeable blisters on Friday, Isola says that the Italian team was not alone in facing issues – although it affected only a few cars.
Isola is also confident that Ferrari will be able to engineer its way out of its tyre situation, so should not face any undue dramas as the result of its aggressive choice of loading up on supersoft tyres this weekend.
Speaking about race strategy, Isola believes that a two-stop race is theoretically quicker based on Friday data, but he says it may not be fast enough to tempt teams to run it.
Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly has been reprimanded for his near-miss with Lewis Hamilton during Practice One. The pair nearly collided at the final chicane at the Suzuka track when Hamilton suddenly encountered a crawling Gasly.
Tomorrow’s qualifying session will again be dominated I feel by Mercedes, it looks as if Ferrari just don’t have the pace to challenge this weekend. Ferrari should I fell been a lot closer to Mercedes as this circuit is a half way circuit between high speed and downforce.
Mercedes have performed very well here since 2014, so they cannot be counted out as the odds-on favourites for pole position. I believe that they remain the ones currently in control, Red Bull also appear as if they are struggling for pace against the top two.