Jenson Button topped both Friday practice sessions at Suzuka, but few would suggest that his McLaren team have the fastest car this weekend. Red Bull remain the team to beat, despite a less-than-perfect start to the Japanese weekend.
Jenson led a McLaren one-two in the opening session whilst champion-in-waiting Vettel suffered an off in his Red Bull.
Lewis Hamilton was P2, a mere 0.091 seconds off Button, as McLaren confounded the expectation that Red Bull would be unbeatable from Friday through Sunday. Vettel was third quickest, 0.456s of the pace, with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and the second Red Bull of Mark Webber completing the top-five.
The German’s off-track excursion has been described as a ‘crash’ but it was really little more than a minor prang: he ran wide, skipped slowly across the gravel and kissed the tyre barrier. Little if any damage was done to his car, though Seb himself looked a little red faced as he returned to the pits.
Meanwhile there were impressive displays from Sebastien Buemi, who went P8 in his Toro Rosso, and Renault’s Vitaly Petrov in tenth. The Russian and his team are in desperate need of a result following a dismal run of races and began the weekend solidly, Bruno Senna ending the session one place back in 11th.
FP1 saw appearances from a trio of third drivers. Nico Hulkenberg was quickest, registering the 12th best time for Force India and beating team-mate Paul di Resta in the process. Karun Chandhok stood in for Heikki Kovalainen at Lotus, setting the 20th best time, whilst Narain Karthikeyan was dead last for HRT. The man who replaced him at the team, youngster Daniel Ricciardo, was seven tenths quicker than the Indian.
Button remained on top in FP2, though the session would prove to be more closely-fought with the top four covered by less than a quarter of a second. Alonso was his nearest challenger, 0.174s shy of top spot, with Vettel a further 0.02s off and Webber five hundredths down on his team-mate.
Toro Rosso looked solid again with Buemi tenth and Jaime Alguersuari P11. Perov also continued to run well with P9. Elsewhere Rubens Barrichello thumped the wall, damaging his Williams, team-mate Pastor Maldonado suffered tech problems and Kamui Kobayashi regularly looked on the brink of disaster. However the local hero somehow managed to avoid any serious incidents.
Jarno Trulli has no powersteering on his Lotus at Suzuka and it showed: the Italian was 23rd quickest in FP2, behind the Virgins and Daniel Ricciardo’s HRT. It’s going to be a long weekend for the Italian.