However, as David Tremayne discovered, a dispute between the top teams and the sport's management is proving more than just a distraction at Suzuka.
As Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher warmed up for the fight for the world championship, storm clouds gathered behind the scenes in the Formula One paddock here, promising a winter of discontent the like of which has not seen since the war between the teams and the governing body in 1981.
Back then, Bernie Ecclestone, the president of the teams' association, Foca, and his lawyer, Max Mosley, battled against the sport's then governing body, Fisa, and its autocratic president, Jean-Marie Balestre. Out of the animosity came the celebrated Concorde agreement, the mandate by which F1 would be run for the next 16 years.
Today Mosley is the president of the FIA, Fisa's successor, and Ecclestone is its vice-president of marketing, and now it is them against the teams. When a new Concorde agreement was drawn up last year, Frank Williams of Williams, Ron Dennis of McLaren and Ken Tyrrell of Tyrrell refused to sign it. When they expressed dissatisfaction with some of its terms most observers expected their objections to be overcome by the time the season started. But eight months later the differences have still to be resolved, and an impatient Mosley has threatened to dissolve the agreement altogether. Talk of legal action by the teams is escalating.
Ecclestone's as yet unsuccessful plans to float F1 have tended to cloud the issue, according to one team owner who wished to remain anonymous. Part of the argument concerns the money the teams expect to receive from any flotation, but he said: "It is also about our intellectual rights. Our right to capitalise on our own trademarks and logos, and to expect and receive remuneration from any rights involving them that the FIA sells, such as in the form of electronic game rights. Why should they sell our trademarks if we don't receive income from that sale?"
The FIA wants the teams to sign a new agreement and promises to incorporate changes proposed by the teams once this has been done. The teams want the changes incorporated beforehand.
"In the real world," the owner said, "it is the sort of thing that would be settled in an afternoon. But reason, logic and responsibility are not things you expect to find in F1."
Another owner, who also wished to remain unidentified, said: "The situation is building up for an all-out conflict. This has all the makings of a very difficult winter for F1."
Against this unsettling backdrop, the championship contenders were upstaged by Eddie Irvine, Ralf Schumacher and Olivier Panis, who exploited fresh tyres to set the fastest times in yesterday's training session. Michael Schumacher ended the day only 10th fastest, but said: "We worked on the basic set-up today. I stopped early this afternoon, because I had finished today's planned programme and I did not want to use another set of tyres."
Nevertheless, the Ferrari's performance has bolstered the German's hopes. Though Ferrari technicians have been tight-lipped on the subject, Schumacher is believed to have benefited from a new system which electronically modulates the engine's torque curve to enhance performance. Ferrari only recently complained about a similar system used by McLaren.
Tyres proved a problem for Villeneuve, who was 11th fastest, after he damaged one of his seven allotted sets by flat-spotting a tyre under heavy braking.
As a result, the Canadian will have to compromise on his track time in today's official qualifying session. "We improved the car a lot already - there is still a lot to come out of it so I am very confident."
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX (Suzuka): Leading times after free practice: 1 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1min 38.903sec (av speed 132.632 mph/213.445 kph); 2 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Peugeot 1:38.911; 3 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Mugen- Honda 1:38.941; 4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Renault 1:39.398; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton-Renault 1:39.454; 6 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Petronas 1:39.840; 7 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 1:39.898; 8 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:39.945; 9 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 1:40.422; 10 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:40.460; 11 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:40.616.; 12 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 1:40.653; 13 G Fisichella (It) Jordan- Peugeot 1:40.720; 14 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:40.724; 15 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:40.937; 16 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi- Hart 1:41.158; 17 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1:42.000; 18 J Verstapen (Neth)Tyrrell-Ford 1:42.290; 19 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 1:42.587; 20 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 1:42.893; 21 G Morbidelli (It) Sauber-Petronas 1:44.736; 22 T Marques (Bra) Minardi-Hart 1:46.282.
1 J Villeneuve (Can) 77pts
2 M Shumacher (Ger) 68
3 H-H Frentzen (Ger) 35
4 D Coulthard (GB) 30
5 J Alesi (Fr) 28
6 G Berger (Aut) 24
7 G Fisichella (It) 20
8 E Irvine (GB) 18
9 O Panis (Fr) 16
10= M Hakkinen (Fin) 14
J Herbert (GB) 14
Remaining grands prix: Tomorrow, Japanese GP, Suzuka; 26 Oct, Grand Prix of Europe, Jerez.Reuse content