SUZUKA, JAPAN // Sebastian Vettel led Mark Webber, the championship leader, in a dominant Red Bull-Renault one-two in both of today's practice sessions.
While they flaunted an advantage of more than half a second over their title rivals, McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton could only watch impotently from the sidelines after crashing in the morning.
When the 2008 Formula One champion did get back on track with eight minutes of the second session remaining, the Briton was able to complete just six laps with the 13th fastest time of the afternoon. The 25-year-old - determined to throw caution aside after three retirements in four races dropped him to third place in the title race and 20 points behind Webber - had completed nine laps before running wide at the Degner double right-hander and hitting the tyre wall. The car came to a halt with the front left wheel hanging limply.
With heavy rain forecast for today, the McLaren title contender knew he had blown his chance of really getting a feel for the new parts his team had brought to the race in an all-out push to catch up with Red Bull. "I was probably pushing too hard, too early. I don't know," he said of his third crash in three races. "They say bad things come in threes so hopefully that's the case, it's over and done with."
The Red Bull drivers, teammates and fierce rivals, had no such problems, with their cars powering around the figure-of-eight circuit. Vettel, last year's winner at the Honda-owned circuit and fourth in the title battle, set a best time of 1min 32.585secs on a dry track in the morning and then, with the sun high in the sky, bettered it after lunch with a 1 min 31.465secs. "The car was reliable and I had a good feeling," he said. "The forecast suggests rain but there's no reason why we shouldn't be competitive in the wet."
Webber, who is 11 points clear of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso with four races left, was 0.048secs and 0.395secs slower. "We couldn't have asked for much more," he said. "We had faultless running and got a lot of mileage. The team put the cars together well and we had a smooth day." Renault's Robert Kubica was the best of the rest in both sessions, 0.544secs slower in the first and an even more demoralising 0.735secs off the pace in the second.
McLaren, who have vowed to throw everything "including the kitchen sink" at their car in the remaining races, had Jenson Button, the world champion, sixth fastest in the afternoon. Despite his accident, Hamilton was fifth quickest in first practice. Button also went wide at Degner in that session but avoided Hamilton's fate. Alonso, the double world champion who has won the last two races, ended the day fourth fastest with Felipe Massa, his Brazilian teammate, fifth.
"It's only Friday, so the times today do not really mean much," said the Spaniard. "In theory, Red Bull look unbeatable here...[but] there were various races where, come Sunday, they were beaten." Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, who is struggling in his comeback season, was a morale-boosting eighth at one of his favourite circuits. Mercedes ridiculed reports yesterday that Schumacher had been told to raise his game or have his contract terminated a year early.
Norbert Haug, the Mercedes motorsport vice-president, said the sport's most successful driver may be driving better than ever despite his 41 years and being out-paced by young teammate Nico Rosberg. German tabloid newspaper Bild had raised the spectre of an ultimatum in an unsourced report but Haug dismissed it at a news conference. "Of course there was no ultimatum," he said. "I think Michael again showed today his class, his full commitment.
"We are currently a little bit handicapped with our car but I have no complaints and no regrets that we're going to achieve our target."