Bottas, Hamilton set early pace in typhoon-hit Japanese GP practice

Suzuka (Japan) (AFP) –


Valtteri Bottas went quickest in first practice for the typhoon-hit Japanese Grand Prix on Friday, a whisker ahead of Mercedes teammate and world championship leader Lewis Hamilton.

The Mercedes pair, benefitting in Japan from an upgrade package to their W10 cars, were almost a second quicker than the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, who were third and fourth on the timing sheets.

The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Alex Albon came next on a condensed racing weekend.

Just before the session began race organisers announced that the entire Saturday track programme, including qualifying, had been scrapped for safety reasons as a "violent" Typhoon Hagibis bears down on the Suzuka circuit.

Qualifying will be rescheduled to 10am (0100 GMT) Sunday, with the race taking place at 2:10pm (0510 GMT) as originally planned, providing the weather improves.

It added extra spice to the session with only Friday's running available to prepare the cars for qualifying.

Should the weather prevent qualifying taking place on Sunday morning, the timings from Friday's second practice will be used to determine the starting grid.

It was a solid start for the Silver Arrows, who can clinch a record sixth successive constructors' world championship for Mercedes with a one-two finish in the race.

Finland's Bottas lapped the 5.807-kilometre circuit in 1min 28.731sec, 0.076sec ahead of Britain's Hamilton.

Vettel of Germany was third on 1:29.720 in his Ferrari, 0.979sec slower than Bottas, and Monaco's Leclerc was fourth with a best lap of 1:29.912.

- Local hero -

It was a timely riposte by Mercedes to the resurgent Ferrari team who had dominated practice and qualifying since the summer break.

A win for Hamilton on Sunday would mean only Bottas, 73 points behind, can catch him in the drivers' standings with just four races to come after Japan.

It would also put the Englishman in line to wrap up a sixth drivers' title, a feat only previously achieved by Michael Schumacher, and third world title in a row at Mexico later this month.

The fanatical Japanese spectators, left reeling from the news of a blank Saturday, were given something to cheer as local hero Naoki Yamamoto made his Formula One debut, replacing Pierre Gasly in the Toro Rosso for the practice session.

"He actually apologised to me for being in my car," said Gasly, who will be back in the car for Friday afternoon's second free practice, Sunday's qualifying and the race.

"I said to him to enjoy and make sure you enjoy every single lap. He's a really good guy, really fast, really talented. He knows Suzuka more than anyone else I think on the planet."

The thousands of spectators lining the circuit had plenty of chance to see their hero.

The 31-year-old reigning champion in Japan's Super Formula and Super GT series completed the joint-most number of laps in the session, along with Kimi Raikkonen of Alfa Romeo and Robert Kubica of Williams.