The Suzuka Circuit was unusually busy for free practice one because forecasts pointed to the imminent arrival of wet weather, which was due to persist through the day and into final practice tomorrow morning (Oct 7).
The 10 constructors attempted to compress three days of data gathering into a single 90-minute session, knowing that qualifying and the race are likely to be dry, and it was Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel that emerged with the fastest time.
The German’s quickest lap of one minute 29.166 seconds was 0.211 seconds quicker than title leader Lewis Hamilton’s best effort in his Mercedes, providing early encouragement to the Italian team desperate to rebound from a string of three troubled grand prixs.
More positive still is that Vettel’s final sector was 0.2 seconds slower than Hamilton’s, suggesting there could yet be more time in the bag for the red team.
Vettel’s soft-tyre pace, similar to that exhibited by Hamilton on the supersoft tyre despite Mercedes running both cars with upgraded aerodynamic packages, was also cause for Silver Arrows concern, albeit early in the weekend.
“I think it was a decent morning,” he said. “We tried to do a lot of things, but it was good to run and get a feel.
“The car was behaving well right from the start, so it looks like everything is on plan.”
Lewis Hamilton was upbeat about his performance, noting that his car feels much improved compared to its lacklustre performance in the previous two races.
“It's been an interesting day,” he said. “The car is feeling much better than it was in Malaysia.
“The car feels back to normal, so I'm ready to race.”
Daniel Ricciardo finished third and 0.15 seconds behind Hamilton’s time, but admitted his Red Bull Racing team needed to find a better compromise between cornering speed and straight-line speed to compete with Ferrari and Mercedes.
“It was okay in the dry,” he said. “Our pace was pretty good.
“We were relatively close to Ferrari and Mercedes, so I think it was not a bad day, but we know they’ll always get a bit quicker, so I think we need to find still a few more tenths if we want to battle with them.”
Rain began to fall in the dying moments of the first session and remained unabated in the afternoon. Drains around the circuit bubbled over with the sheer volume of water streaming across the road, forcing a 45-minute delay to the start of the second session.
By the time the second session started the likelihood of wet qualifying outweighed by the risk of having to repair a car damaged in the treacherous weather for most.
Only five car bravely ventured out into the wet conditions to set a lap time, including Hamilton, who set the fastest time.
Renault start political dogfight by poaching FIA Tech Chief
Shortly before the start of the rained-out second free practice session, almost as if to give those at the circuit something to do, Renault controversially announced former FIA technical head Marcin Budkowski as its new executive director.
Budkowski left the FIA early last week to begin three months of ‘gardening leave’ – enforced leave between jobs to protect the intellectual property of the previous employer – but teams are unhappy about the prospect of the Pole joining a rival so soon after playing a high-profile adjudicator role in the sport.
As top technical officer Budkowski has been privy to the sensitive intellectual property of the teams. Part of the role had him advising teams on the legality of their designs.
“It’s vital that the teams have trust and faith in the governing body that they can discuss their technical know-how … which cost millions and millions of pounds, in confidence that that information doesn’t have the ability to end up in a rival team,” Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner said last week.
“I think [a] three months notice period for him to then turn up in a competitor team in Formula One is entirely inappropriate.”
Renault, however, remains unapologetic, with managing director Cyril Abiteboul telling Sky Sports F1 that his team is “not here to make friends”.
“We want to be one of the top teams by 2020,” he said. “If you look at the 1.0 to 1.5-second gap between the midfield and the top teams, it’s a big jump. That is why we need to be aggressive in what we do to be there by 2020.”
Abiteboul conceded after the announcement, however, that his team was prepared to work with the FIA to extend Budkowski's gardening leave period to six months for a start date of April 2018, tough no agreement has yet been reached.
Rival teams have written to the governing body and the commercial rights holder and are expected to raise the matter at the next meeting of the strategy group, where Renault is an observing member but unable to contribute to proceedings.