By Abhishek Takle
SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) – Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton was comfortably quickest in both practice sessions for the Japanese Grand Prix as the Mercedes driver piled the pressure on title rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari on Friday.
Briton Hamilton, fastest ahead of team mate Valtteri Bottas in first practice, lapped the 5.8-km Suzuka circuit even quicker in the later session, posting one minute, 28.217 seconds.
That was 0.833 seconds quicker than Vettel, who improved from fifth in the morning to third quickest in the second session but had no answer to Hamilton’s pace.
“I really didn’t know where we were going to stand alongside the Red Bulls and the Ferraris,” the 33-year-old Briton said after the session. “But I just came here with the mindset, ‘Okay I know where I want to get the car.’”
A little over half an hour into the 90-minute session, he had let out a whoop of delight over the team radio: “This track is awesome, I’m having the best day.
“(In) these new cars we’re much faster than we were last year,” he said explaining his radio transmission.
“…they don’t make tracks like this any more.”
Bottas, second again in the afternoon, could get no closer than 0.461 seconds of the Briton’s best.
Hamilton, winner of five of the last six races, leads Vettel by 50 points in the standings with four races left after Japan.
Vettel hoped the Suzuka circuit would suit his car better than the last two races in Singapore and Russia to ignite his fading title hopes but on Friday’s evidence the Mercedes pair will be hard to beat.
Vettel’s afternoon effort, while quicker than his best attempt in the first 90 minutes, was still slower than Hamilton’s morning benchmark, which the Briton had set on the less grippy soft tyres.
“Time will tell, I don’t know,” said the 31-year-old Vettel when asked if he thought the deficit to Hamilton could be bridged.
“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.”
Max Verstappen, sixth in the morning, was fourth fastest for Red Bull ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. Verstappen’s team mate Daniel Ricciardo was sixth fastest in the afternoon after being third in the morning.
Esteban Ocon stayed seventh, the Frenchman once again the best-of-the-rest in his Force India, and Romain Grosjean was again eighth.
Marcus Ericsson was ninth for Sauber ahead of Kiwi Brendon Hartley, who improved from 17th in the morning to round out the top 10.
Briton Lando Norris, set to make his Formula One debut next season with McLaren, stood in for departing Stoffel Vandoorne in the morning and ended bottom of the timesheets in 20th.
The Belgian returned to the car in the afternoon but could do no better, once again propping up the order.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford and Ken Ferris)