Red Bull impresses in Japanese GP practice

by Jim Armstrong

The Associated Press

SUZUKA, Mie Pref. — Red Bull teammates Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber dominated Friday’s practice for the Japanese Grand Prix, indicating they are the team to beat in Sunday’s Formula One race.

Vettel, who won last year’s race here, clocked an impressive time of 1 minute, 31.465 seconds around the Suzuka circuit in the second practice session — 0.395 seconds clear of championship leader Webber. Renault driver Robert Kubica was third fastest.

Vettel and Webber were also 1-2 in the first practice session.

“We had a trouble-free Friday, which is the most important thing” Vettel said. “Especially at a track like this where you need to get into a rhythm with all the quick turns following each other.”

Webber has an 11-point lead over Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso in the drivers’ standings and could take a big step toward securing the championship with a win on Sunday.

“The balance of the car feels good,” Webber said. “It’s a tough circuit with a lot of corners so you need to work out what the best priorities are for the best lap times.”

Alonso, who won the previous two races in Italy and Singapore to move to second in the standings, was fourth-fastest — 0.897 seconds off the pace and just ahead of teammate Felipe Massa.

Lewis Hamilton, who crashed in the morning practice, returned with only eight minutes remaining in the second session, having to use the old rear wing, and finished 13th, two seconds slower than Vettel.

Hamilton’s morning accident cost him most of the day’s practice time, and came amid an error-ridden second half of the season for the English driver, who crashed out of the past two races.

“I was only on my second fast lap, and was probably pushing too hard too soon. I didn’t go that wide — it wasn’t that big an off — but the gravel was very slippery at that point,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s McLaren teammate Jenson Button, who heads into Sunday’s race still in contention for the championship, was sixth.

Seven-time champion Michael Schumacher took eighth, three places ahead of his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

Rain has been forecast for Saturday’s qualifying but Vettel said that shouldn’t make his team any less competitive.