The two world championship title contenders sent out mixed messages after yesterday's two practice sessions for the Japanese Grand Prix.
Jenson Button, the only man who can now stop Sebastian Vettel from winning a second consecutive title, was fastest in both, while Vettel himself, who needs just one point from tomorrow afternoon's race, was third in each of them.
Button, however, urged McLaren to make further improvements over-night, after his morning advantage of almost half a second over the German was significantly eroded in the afternoon. "I'm pretty happy but we need to improve a lot more to feel confident that we can really challenge the Red Bulls," he said. "It's always fun driving around Suzuka, particularly when you have a good car. This is an amazing circuit – the first sector is phenomenal. I don't think you breathe through that whole sector. It's all about getting it together and finding a balance that lets you flow through there.
"The car feels pretty good. We tried a couple of different fuel-loads: on heavier fuel, the car feels OK through the high-speed changes of direction, although there are still areas to improve, particularly in the long runs."
True form is notoriously difficult to assess on Fridays, when teams conduct their evaluation of the two Pirelli tyre compounds, but may use differing fuel loads which can skew ultimate lap times. "We don't know the real picture yet," Button continued. "I mean, they are extremely quick, but I don't think we are that slow. You never know what people are doing with fuel loads. We just get on with our own work."
Button is realistic about his chances of preventing Vettel from winning the title. He would have to win all five remaining races, with the German failing to score in each. It is the longest of long shots, and he knows it. Instead, his sights are set on adding a victory at Suzuka – acknowledged by the drivers to be one of the greatest tracks in racing – to his CV. "Seb has still yet to fail to finish or to finish outside the top 10," he said, "and he hasn't done that yet this year. The important thing for us is to be quick enough to challenge for victory."
Vettel got a minor wake-up call in the morning session when he ran wide on the exit to the Degner one corner, bounced down the grass and nosed gently into the tyre wall on the outside of the ensuing Degner Two. His Red Bull was only lightly damaged, but it was a message not to be complacent.
"I had a good reminder not to start thinking about something else," he said. "It was not really a big mistake. It was maybe I was not 100 per cent awake, and mistakes around here can be quite costly. I tried to slow the car down as much as possible but didn't make it and hit the wall slightly. It was not a big impact but it did some damage to the car. It's not perfect and it did affect our run plan a little bit.
"It's pretty tricky this year on these tyres," he added. "The cars generally are a bit more alive. On Sunday, it will be quite interesting."
Though it was a good day for Button, it brought a disappointing overall result for his team-mate Lewis Hamilton. The Englishman, who usually shines round here, was second fastest to Button in the morning but never got going in the afternoon before a deterioration in track conditions removed any chance of further improvement, He was only eighth in that session, but was upbeat about McLaren's chances.
"Looking at the times, Red Bull typically carries less fuel than us during Friday, and we're often closer in the races," he said. "Our long-run pace, particularly on Jenson's car, looks good. We've got a good chance of being very competitive.
"Looking after the tyres during the race will be the biggest challenge, because degradation could be a slight issue for the teams."
While Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber, fourth in the standings, said he would be racing whichever way he wanted, without any need to help his partner, Fernando Alonso said a podium finish was the best he was expecting even though he was second fastest in the afternoon. "This year we have seen all the teams go through so many highs and lows, with the exception of Red Bull, so we should not be too surprised if it seems that we have done better than in Singapore for example," Alonso said. "In fact, I don't think that things are so different to what they were two weeks ago.
"The feeling from today is a little bit more encouraging than in previous races, and here we will see a lot more overtaking than in past years."
Suzuka Practice Times
FIA Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan
1 J Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 33.634 sec
2 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:33.725
3 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1:34.090
4 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:34.372
5 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:34.426
6 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:34.937
7 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:35.585
8 S Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:35.590
9 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:36.033
10 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:36.370
11 B Senna (Br) Renault 1:36.487
12 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India-Mercedes 1:36.700
13 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 1:36.948
14 P Di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes 1:36.949
15 S Perez (Mex) Sauber 1:37.103
16 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:38.197
17 R Barrichello (Br) Williams-Cosworth 1:38.331
18 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Cosworth 1:38.446
19 J Trulli (It) Lotus-Renault 1:39.168
20 K Chandhok (India) Lotus-Renault 1:39.946
21 T Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth 1:40.872
22 J D'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin-Cosworth 1:41.019
23 D Ricciardo (Aus) Hispania-Cosworth 1:41.106
24 N Karthikeyan (India) Hispania-Cosworth 1:41.775
1 J Button 1:31.901
2 F Alonso 1:32.075
3 S Vettel 1:32.095
4 M Webber 1:32.147
5 F Massa 1:32.448
6 M Schumacher 1:32.710
7 N Rosberg 1:32.982
8 L Hamilton 1:33.245
9 V Petrov 1:33.446
10 S Buemi 1:33.681
11 J Alguersuari 1:33.705
12 A Sutil 1:33.790
13 S Perez 1:34.393
14 B Senna 1:34.557
15 P Di Resta 1:34.601
16 K Kobayashi 1:36.038
17 H Kovalainen 1:36.225
18 R Barrichello 1:37.123
19 T Glock 1:37.440
20 J D'Ambrosio 1:38.093
21 P Maldonado 1:38.387
22 D Ricciardo 1:38.763
23 J Trulli 1:39.800
24 V Liuzzi 1:42.480
Standings: 1 Vettel 309; 2 Button 185; 3 Alonso 184; 4 Webber 82 5 Hamilton 168; 6 Massa 84; 7 Rosberg 62; 8 Schumacher 52; 9 Petrov 34; 10 Heidfeld 34.Reuse content