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Japanese GP 2018

OCTOBER 5, 2018

Practice 1 Report - The biggest steps

Lewis Hamilton, Japanese GP 2018
© RV Press

By Dan Knutson

"Our understanding of the car is where we are making the biggest steps," Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton said prior to practice for the Japanese Grand Prix. "Just all-round the car feels great. And the engine performance is improving, efficiency is improving, the car stability is improving."

He and teammate Valtteri Bottas then proved that point by clocking the fastest lap times in Free Practice 1.

The line-up for the weekend was: Mercedes - Hamilton and Bottas; Ferrari - Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen; Red Bull TAG Heuer - Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen; Racing Point Force India Mercedes - Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon; Williams Mercedes -Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin; Renault - Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz; Toro Rosso Honda - Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly; Haas Ferrari - Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen; McLaren Renault - Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne; Sauber Ferrari - Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc.

Lando Norris drove Vandoorne's McLaren in FP1.

While this was Gasly's first outing the 3.608-mile (5.807 km) 18-turn Suzuka Circuit in a F1 car, he knows the track and country well.

"Japan feels a bit like my second home as I spent so much time there last year, when I was racing in Super Formula with Honda," he said. "It was a special season with great memories from the actual racing and also away from the circuits. It's a country I really like for its culture, the mentality of the people and the way they think.

"I loved racing at Suzuka, it's one of the great tracks. The first section in particular with the run of Esses is a fantastic challenge, one of the best bits of track we race on all year. It's very fast and you can really test the limits of the car."

Pirelli's slick tires for the weekend were the medium, soft and super soft. However rain was in the forecast.

Sainz headed out first but stopped for a practice start, so Ericsson was the first on track.

The ambient temperature at the start of the 90-minute session was 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Centigrade) and the track temperature was 77 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Centigrade).

While most drivers did install laps, the Red Bull drivers were doing flying laps. Verstappen clocked a 1:30.298, marginally better than Ricciardo by a mere 0.014 of a second.

Then Ricciardo cleared Verstappen with a lap in 1:30.030.

Leclerc, Ericsson and Ocon rounded out the top five in the early going. But 30 minutes into the session Bottas, Raikkonen and Hamilton had moved into those spots.

Then Hamilton took the lead only to be replaced by Bottas who turned a 1:29.842 on the soft tires.

Shortly thereafter Hamilton had a close call when he encountered a slowing Gasly at the chicane and had to dodge down the escape road. And shortly thereafter Perez had a spin at the same chicane.

At the 40-minute break the order was: Bottas, Vettel, Hamilton, Ricciardo, Verstappen, Raikkonen, Grosjean, Gasly, Leclerc and Ocon.

The customary lull ensued. Alonso got things rolling with about 42 minutes remaining in FP1. He then proceeded to slide into the gravel traps in the Degner turns. He avoided the barriers and headed for the pits.

Gasly also had an off - at Turn 3 - and went plowing through the grass.

Things were going better for Bottas who clocked a 1:29.137 on the medium tires. Hamilton was out on the soft compound Pirellis as he got down to a 1:28.691.

With just under half an hour to go, Hamilton remained fastest ahead of Bottas, Ricciardo, Raikkonen, Vettel, Verstappen, Ocon, Grosjean, Leclerc and Ericsson.

Now the tires were worn and the lap times dropped off. And those great-feeling Mercedes cars remained out front as the top ten remained unchanged.