Hamilton leads Mercedes 1-2 in Japanese GP first practice

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Mercedes has opened the Japanese Grand Prix weekend with a 1-2 effort in Friday free practice 1. Lewis Hamilton led Nico Rosberg in the 90-minute session.

Hamilton’s best lap of 1:34.157 around the 3.6-mile Suzuka Circuit was more than a quarter second quicker than his 2012 teammate, Jenson Button, turned a year ago in a McLaren (1:34.507).

Rosberg was 0.33 of a second in arrears and the rest of the top 10 was nearly in proper “Noah’s Ark” two-by-two grid formation until right at the end of the session.

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were third and fourth in the two Red Bulls, with the two Ferraris (Felipe Massa ahead of Fernando Alonso) and two Lotus-Renaults (Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen) next up.

Sergio Perez was ninth in the McLaren with Daniel Ricciardo’s late flier of 1:35.635 eclipsing Button’s 10th place time.

Monza and Korea hero Nico Hulkenberg was 12th for Sauber. Both Force Indias struggled; Paul di Resta was unable to get his tires properly up to temperatures and was just 17th ahead of Hulkenberg’s teammate Esteban Gutierrez.

While things were uneventful at the front of the grid there were four incidents of note from the tail-enders. Two happened simultaneously with 22 minutes remaining.

Williams’ Pastor Maldonado lost his left rear wheel on exit at Spoon Curve, and that pitched him into a spin. At the same time, Caterham’s Giedo van der Garde went off at Degner 2, locking his brakes and ending in the gravel before hitting the barriers.

Marussia’s Jules Bianchi wasn’t so lucky earlier in the session. He went off at the same corner, Degner 2, the second part of the double-apex right hander. When he tried to apply opposite lock to correct the oversteer, his arm was stuck against the side of the cockpit and he went into the barrier. It caused some left front damage to his car.

Teammate Max Chilton had a lazy but not serious spin right at the end of the session.

Elsewhere at the back of the grid, Heikki Kovalainen was back in the second Caterham, and clocked in 19th in Charles Pic’s chassis. Kovalainen led the three other tail-enders; his best time of 1:37.595 was less than a tenth clear of Bianchi, with van der Garde and Chilton further back.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.