Valtteri Bottas was fastest in a second practice session for the Japanese Grand Prix that could decide the grid order for Sunday’s race.
The teams were informed ahead of FP1 that all of Saturday’s running had been cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis, with the circuit closed to spectators, media and the majority of team personnel. Qualifying is scheduled to take place on Sunday morning, but if the weather conditions don’t allow that then the FP2 order will be used to decide the grid.
That added an extra level of competitiveness to Friday’s second session and Bottas had to recover from a spin to set the fastest time that could deliver him pole position for Sunday’s race.
Bottas spun exiting the final corner when winding up for his first flying lap on soft tires, but went on to later set a 1m27.785s to lead teammate Lewis Hamilton by exactly 0.1s. Although Mercedes had a clear advantage in the morning session, it was much smaller in the afternoon as Max Verstappen set the third-fastest time, just 0.281s adrift of Bottas.
While all teams were aware of the potential importance of the session, only Ferrari of the front-runners opted for a late run on new soft tires to try and improve their positions, with Charles Leclerc rising from sixth to fourth late on but 0.356s off Bottas, and Sebastian Vettel barely improving as he ended up fifth on a 1m28.376s, just edging out Alexander Albon.
Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez, Pierre Gasly and Lando Norris rounded out the top 10, with Gasly using a set of softs at the end of the session to get ahead of the McLaren rookie. It was a particularly notable lap given the fact that Gasly had not taken part in FP1 as Toro Rosso ran Honda driver Naoki Yamamoto.
The best laps for all drivers came on the soft compound, and it was a concerning session for Renault as Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg ended up 17th and 18th respectively, with a late lap from Hulkenberg still leaving him 2.5 seconds off the pace. The issue for all of the late runners was a lack of clear track, with the majority of cars circulating but many still on high fuel and not chasing an overall lap time.
Hulkenberg was 0.6s clear of Robert Kubica, with the Pole beating George Russell by 0.15s in what could prove to be the first time he has outqualfiied his teammate this season.