Lewis Hamilton fastest in Suzuka practice ahead of 2018 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying

Lewis Hamilton on track in Suzuka practice ahead of the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix. Picture: Wolfgang Wilhelm for Daimler AG.

Lewis Hamilton on track in Suzuka practice ahead of the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix. Picture: Wolfgang Wilhelm for Daimler AG.

© Wolfgang Wilhelm for Daimler AG

Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton battles for pole position in qualifying for the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix on Saturday having dominated the opening practice sessions at Suzuka.

The four-time F1 world champion from Hertfordshire was fastest in Friday’s two practice sessions in Japan.

Hamilton, who leads the world championship by 50 points from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel after winning last weekend’s 2018 Russian Grand Prix, topped the time sheets in the first session with Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas just behind in P2.

The Stevenage-born motor racer clocked a lap of 1min 28.691sec in FP1.

Hamilton also put in the fastest lap of the afternoon sessions, with a second practice best of 1m 28.217s.

Inside the Mercedes garage at the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix. Picture: Wolfgang Wilhelm for Daimler AG.Inside the Mercedes garage at the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix. Picture: Wolfgang Wilhelm for Daimler AG.

Bottas was again in P2 around the Suzuka circuit.

Silver Arrows star Hamilton will now be hoping to end Saturday’s qualifying on pole – although the session could be hit by rain.

Hamilton said: “Every time we come to Suzuka, particularly over the last few years, the cars just get faster and faster, it’s incredible.

“They don’t make tracks like this anymore – there’s very little room for run-off, a little touch of the grass and you’re off in the wall.

“Suzuka has to be one of my favourite circuits, if not the favourite one, it’s very cool.

“Especially the first and second sectors are insane, the first section is the best roller coaster ride that I’ve felt in a Formula One car.”

The Mercedes team today focused on general balance work and comparing the different tyre compounds for Suzuka.

Hamilton said: “The balance was in quite a nice place, so I was just enjoying it.

“Every year I come back, there are always areas that I can improve, so I was like, ‘There are two or three corners where I know that I need to kill it this year’ and I got straight up to it.

“I was much better than I had ever been through those particular corners.

“Now I just have to stay on it, keep working; my team and I, we’re working so well together in fine-tuning this car.

“I’m just loving driving more than ever; when you get in the car, it’s just the best, it’s so fast and I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to do what I do.

“I’ve just been giving thanks all day today because this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Hamilton’s Silver Arrows colleague Bottas said: “It’s always good fun in Suzuka, this is such an enjoyable track to drive.

“The car also felt quite good, although for me it was better in FP1 than in FP2.

“We have a full night ahead to investigate all the changes we made and find the right set-up.

“But overall the car felt pretty good throughout all sectors, I just had some balance issues, struggling a bit with understeer.”

The Finn, who handed victory to Hamilton in Sochi, added: “Overall it’s a good starting point for the weekend, but it’s hard to say where we stand in relation to the others.

“It always gets more intense in qualifying, so we’re going to work just as hard as usual to find all the improvements we can.

“The weather is likely to change tomorrow, so it was good for everyone that we had a dry Friday because it’s supposed to be dry on Sunday as well.

“It’s also going to be a lot warmer in the race, so that will be different, but at least we got enough running already in dry conditions, so it doesn’t matter if it’s wet tomorrow.

“Even in the dry it’s very easy to make mistakes on this track – one small mistake and you’re off.

“In the wet, it’s ten times more difficult. Suzuka is one of the most challenging tracks in the wet.

“The track becomes much more unpredictable, especially when it rains hard or if there is standing water.

“So if qualifying is wet tomorrow, it should be very interesting.”

Mercedes chief race engineer Andrew Shovlin said the team’s pace “seems reasonably strong” but was wary of the weather forecase.

He said: “It looks like we could face quite different conditions in qualifying and race.

“We’re expecting some rain overnight and the wind looks strong tomorrow which could make things tricky for the drivers in qualifying.

“Then for Sunday we’re expecting hot and sunny conditions.

“We’ve got good data on the tyres from today, but it is never easy to predict exactly how they will behave on a much warmer track.

“The headline times from today do flatter us but we can still find some time working on the balance both on a single lap and a long run.”

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