On a day when the imminence of Sebastian Vettel’s fourth consecutive World Championship paled into insignificance in the face of Maria de Villota’s human story, the German once again took control of events on the racetrack.
Upstaged again by Lewis Hamilton in the first practice session for tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix, Vettel moved ahead in the second and led his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber by a small margin.
“The balance is decent, but I think we can still improve,” Vettel suggested. “Looking after the tyres will be important here, especially during the race. The car works fine at the moment, but we need to make sure we set it up the right way. We need to step up our game as Mercedes will be strong in qualifying.”
Hamilton, who loves driving on the fast and flowing Suzuka track, said his Mercedes felt strong as Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez, Pastor Maldonado, Giedo van der Garde and Jules Bianchi all went off the road. “I’m happy with where our car is after the first practice sessions today, although, of course, we would love to be more competitive. We’ve got some work to do this evening on the tyre management in particular. It’s too early to think about what we can achieve but I’m looking forward to a competitive qualifying tomorrow,” Hamilton said.
There was encouragement for Jenson Button too as he split the Ferraris in ninth place in his McLaren. “Throughout the day we saw a lot of drivers making mistakes, but that’s the nature of this place,” Button said. “It’s unforgiving and you appreciate that you have to respect this place. We found a good balance on the hard tyre, but still need to do some work with the medium because we didn’t gain too much going from the harder tyre to the softer one.”
Fernando Alonso told Ferrari to raise their game if he is to have any chance of denying Vettel his title. After practice the Spaniard, who is 77 points adrift, was down in 10th place. “We definitely need to improve because we were not at a good level,” he said. Alonso did not help his own cause, as he was one of those who suffered on the unforgiving track with its many gravel traps. He was fortunate to avoid one as he spun on the approach to the second Degner curve that caught out several of the other drivers.
“We didn’t extract the maximum, but I also made a mistake with a spin,” Alonso added. “Things were not good enough. Luckily, when I spun I didn’t ruin the tyres. We also managed to use them on the long run with a full fuel load, even if we definitely lost a few extra tenths from the first lap. We must now put together a series of changes we have in mind and do a good lap in Q3 because it’s important to start from the front.”
Williams were fined £51,000 yesterday after a wheel came off Maldonado’s car during a practice session. Stewards said the incident, in which the rear left wheel bounced across the track, was regarded as a serious safety issue.