Mercedes started the Japanese Grand Prix weekend with another one-two result led by Lewis Hamilton as Fernando Alonso made a rare mistake in FP1.
Hamilton posted a 1m28.691s on soft tires to lead teammate Valtteri Bottas by nearly half a second in the opening session, but the Finn’s time of 1m29.137s came on the slower medium compound tire. It was another strong start to the weekend for Mercedes, with Daniel Ricciardo 0.682s off the pace in third place but having used the supersoft compound, as was the case for Kimi Raikkonen in fourth, Sebastian Vettel in fifth and Max Verstappen in sixth.
Even in FP1 — generally used to test set-ups and new parts — the Ferraris’ deficit of the better part of a second will have been a concern to Vettel and Raikkonen. It should be noted that the Scuderia will focus its practice running almost exclusively on the supersofts due to its tire choice for the weekend, although expected wet weather could make the differences in selections less significant.
Esteban Ocon also used the soft tires and was seventh fastest, 1.9s off Hamilton, while Romain Grosjean, Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson rounded out the top ten on supersofts.
Ericsson actually posted the exact same lap time as Pierre Gasly in 11th, with the Swede ranked ahead having registered a 1m31.073s earlier than the Toro Rosso driver. Gasly used the soft compound for his best lap, but was involved in two incidents during the session, with the first one earning him a trip to the stewards.
The Frenchman had slowed dramatically to make a gap before the final chicane in order to get clear air for his next lap, but was on the racing line and seemingly unaware of Hamilton approaching. The championship leader had to take evasive action and locked up, missing the chicane and raising a hand in frustration as he rejoined behind the Toro Rosso.
While that incident will be investigated after the session, Gasly then ran wide at Turn 2 after appearing to lose the rear taking too much curb, bouncing across the grass and picking up plenty of debris on his front wing and sidepods before rejoining.
Sergio Perez also had a spin at Turn 17 on his way to the 13th-quickest time, but the most dramatic moment was delivered by Alonso.
Approaching Degner 1, Alonso dipped two wheels on the grass on the outside of the track and ran wide into the gravel at high speed as a result. A spin was inevitable, but Alonso did well to release the brakes once the car had slowed enough, ensuring it did not dig in and allowing him to drive out to return to the pits.
Some damage to the floor of the McLaren was visible, but Alonso still went 0.6s clear of Lando Norris with his next attempt as the pair completed the session on the medium compound tire, finishing 18th and 20th respectively.