/ 7 October 2011

Button sets Japanese GP pace at practice round

McLaren driver Jenson Button set the fastest time in Friday’s practice sessions for the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix.

The Briton clocked a time of 1 minute, 31.901 seconds in the afternoon session at the Suzuka circuit to finish 0.174 seconds ahead of Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso. Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was third-fastest.

Button, who just signed a lucrative contract extension with the British team, must win Sunday’s race and hope that Vettel finishes out of the points to keep the drivers’ championship fight alive. Vettel hasn’t finished lower than fourth this season.

“It’s only Friday but the car feels pretty good,” Button said. “I always enjoy racing at Suzuka especially when you have a good car. But we need to improve a lot more to feel confident to challenge the Red Bulls and hopefully we can do that overnight.”

Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber was fourth fastest followed by Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, Mercedes pair Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, then McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton.

Vettel, who has won nine of 14 races this season, holds a 124-point lead over Button with five races to go and is looking to become the sport’s youngest two-title winner.

Button also had the fastest time in the morning practice session.

It was a rough afternoon for Williams drivers Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado. Barrichello crashed at the hairpin and Maldonado rolled to a halt. They were 17th and 21st respectively on the timesheets.

Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi lost control of his Sauber and went sideways at the 130R turn before regaining control and eventually finished 17th.

Vettel ran wide at the Degner curve near the end of the morning session and made contact with the barriers. The German climbed unhurt from his car, jogging back to pit lane while his car was lifted away with a damaged front wing.

“It wasn’t a big mistake in the morning but in that moment I wasn’t 100% awake and mistakes around here can be costly,” Vettel, the defending F1 champion, said. “I went off and I tried to slow the car down but I hit the wall slightly. It wasn’t a big impact but it did some damage to the car. It did affect our plan a little but we had a solid afternoon.”

Qualifying for Sunday’s race will be on Saturday. — Sapa-AP