• McLaren driver admits to ‘pushing too hard’
• Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber again look like men to beat
Lewis Hamilton had said he was on the ragged edge ahead of this weekend and in first practice he went beyond it. Halfway through the morning session, he crashed at the second Degner corner here and his car only reappeared on circuit with 10 minutes to spare in the afternoon.
“I was only on my second fast lap and was probably pushing too hard too soon,” Hamilton said dejectedly. “I didn’t go that wide – it wasn’t that big an off – but the gravel was very slippery at that point.” The loss of track time will not have helped the Briton’s cause in this tightest of title fights.
“Once you go over the kerbs here, you don’t come back,” was how Robert Kubica of Renault summed up the Suzuka circuit and the two Degners are the likely crash site at this testing circuit. Hamilton’s team-mate Jenson Button had talked about the dangers of turns eight and nine, as the drivers call them, before practice and believes that getting the second corner of the lap wrong can lead to disaster almost a mile up the road.
“From turn two onwards you choose your line,” explained Button. “If you get a little bit out of shape or you take slightly the wrong line all the way through there you’re making it worse for yourself every corner you get to.
“Eventually you get to turn seven and you’re positioned wrong, you’re either taking it too tight or you’re a little bit too wide, it’s also a little bit bumpy there and you can start to lose the rear of the car quite easily. It’s at the end of a long six or seven corners and at that point, it’s a very specialist section and there aren’t many places like it.”
As if to emphasise the point, Button too had a huge moment on the exit of the second Degner, but, unlike Hamilton, managed to keep his McLaren out of the wall.
There was not much to cheer for almost all the teams when they looked at the timing screens. Before a car turned a wheel Rubens Barrichello reckoned that the Red Bulls would be half a second better off than anyone else around Suzuka and at the end of the first session he was exactly right. By the end of the second session, the gap was approaching three?quarters of a second, with Sebastian Vettel ahead of Mark Webber on both occasions.
“We had a trouble-free Friday, which is the most important thing, especially at a track like this where you need to get into a rhythm with all the quick corners following each other,” said Vettel. “The car was reliable and the pace looks OK too. The forecast suggests rain, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be competitive in the wet.”
Webber too was unconcerned about the forecast for the weekend, saying: “We’ve got good info in the bank, so we’re ready for what happens.”
Webber leads the championship by 11 points and appears unflustered by the pressure and attention that brings, but he is the target for all his rivals to beat this weekend.
“Most important thing here is to get a podium and you have to finish in front of Mark, basically,” said Button. “Mark’s the champs leader, he’s the one who has got the margin. No disrespect to him, he’s a very talented guy, but it’s a tough position to be in because you never know how sensible you need to be.
“It’s a difficult compromise because you need to get results and you don’t want to crash and throw anything away. It’s really tough for him but for us there’s only one thing we can do and that’s be aggressive.”
One fly in the championship ointment is Kubica. The Pole was fourth fastest yesterday, just ahead of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Kubica is an artist in the tricky conditions forecast and while the five championship rivals take care of each other, the Renault driver might well be in a position to help himself to the race.