Lewis Hamilton’s campaign to become the first British world champion in over a decade got off to a solid start in Fuji after the McLaren driver showed strong underlying pace during practice ahead of Sunday’s decisive Japanese Grand Prix.
Hamilton arrives in Japan with a seven point lead over his main championship contender Felipe Massa after the Brazilian’s pit-lane mix up in Singapore a fortnight ago effectively nullified the advantage he had gained as a result of Hamilton’s Belgian GP penalty.
The battle between the championship protagonists showed little signs of abating on Friday as the two rivals traded blows during the opening two practice sessions for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.
It was Hamilton who appeared to have the edge after he lapped quickest of anyone in the morning session before pipping Massa to third place in the afternoon behind Toyota’s Timo Glock and Singapore Grand Prix winner Fernando Alonso.
“We were immediately on the pace and found a very good balance straight away,” said Hamilton, who dominated the race last year in monsoon conditions.
“In the afternoon, I did a promising longer run with no major problems and I feel confident about our pace for the rest of the weekend.”
“Fuji is a place I really enjoy: it’s not the easiest of tracks because it requires a good set-up to get the best from the car, but I had no complaints today.”
Massa was never far behind Hamilton in the opening practice sessions and is well poised to challenge the Briton for pole position on Saturday given his searing qualifying pace.
“I am pleased with this first day in Japan,” reflected Massa. “The balance of the car is very good, both on the first timed lap and over a distance.”
“The times are very close and maybe I could have been a bit further up the order in the afternoon session if I had not encountered traffic on my last run on the soft tyres.”
“These seem to be very quick, which is no surprise, but also very consistent. I really want to do well this weekend and we will try and win and bring home the best result possible for the two championships.”
Hamilton and Massa’s respective team mates Heikki Kovalainen and Kimi Raikkonen have both pledged their support and will pivotal to the outcome to both the drivers’ and constructors’ championship.
Kovalainen lapped third quickest in the morning session ahead of Raikkonen before winding up ninth in the afternoon.
“Today was a pretty straightforward practice day with no major problems,” he commented. “We successfully went through our tyre comparison programme, which went well.”
“We made some good progress with the set-up into the afternoon and that also made me feel a lot more confident about attacking this place. I don t think today s times are totally representative, but we re certainly in good shape for the rest of the weekend.”
“It seems very finely balanced with the lap times all very close. This means it will be very important to have a good qualifying otherwise you run the risk of being a long way back on the grid. I think our car is going well on this track and even if there is still some work to do to improve the handling, I am reasonably satisfied.
Raikkonen meanwhile matched Massa for pace throughout both the sessions and affirmed afterwards: “I will try to do the best I can for myself and for the team.”