Final free practice at the Japanese Grand Prix topped by Nico Rosberg.
After yesterday’s rain cleared from Suzuka, the track bathed in sunshine and clouds as the Formula One paddock racked up the laps to catch up on their missed running. One man who was continuously on it was Daniel Ricciardo, but the pace setter at the flag was Nico Rosberg as the teams looked ahead to qualifying and Mercedes put themselves back on top.
Despite the rain keeping the cars in the garages for more of the sessions than they spent out on track, FP1 and FP2 at the Japanese Grand Prix did have their fair share of action. But with the rain determining when track conditions were at the best and what set of wet tyres were needed, it was Carlos Sainz who topped the first practice session as he lapped Suzuka on the intermediate tyres at the right moment. Then later in the day, in a track which got worse as the session progressed, it was Daniil Kvyat topping the time sheet when he set the fastest time before the rain returned.
Luckily the rain did not return to Suzuka for Saturday and the track was left to dry out for some dry tyre running. And with the rain causing teams to lose their data gathering opportunities, almost the entire field began their running as soon as the lights went green.
At the start of the session, most drivers including the early pace-setting Daniel Ricciardo were running the hard, prime tyres and with those the Aussie posted first time of the day after four minutes with a 1:36.392. But while Sainz, Maldonado, Bottas and Ericsson swiftly joined the early pace-setter, Grosjean bucked the trend to use mediums straight away as Lotus split their first runs.
As the track began to rubber in with the laps racking up, Daniel Ricciardo lowered his benchmark time closer to the 1:35 marker before pitting for the medium tyres at the mid-session mark.
Unfortunately for Ricciardo, on this softer set of tyres, even his now 1:34.497 lap time was no longer enough to see him in the top spot as Rosberg posted his first competitive time to go half a second clear of the man who sat half a second clear of Massa in third.
Like Rosberg, Hamilton also took a while to set a competitive time before rocketing up the leaderboard and into second. But unlike Nico, Lewis was kept in the garage as the team worked on his sidepod while Rosberg carried out presumably higher fuel running for race data.
Yesterday’s pace setting Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz both found themselves off the pace of their team-mates in this morning’s session. But while Carlos sat tucked behind Verstappen’s time on the leaderboard, he was eight tenths off his younger counterpart. But there again, the margin between the Toro Rosso youngsters was nothing compared to the two full seconds that split the Red Bull drivers with Kvyat unable to hook up a clean lap while Ricciardo found the pace early on.
When the tack fell quiet late on in preparation for the qualifying simulation laps, Daniel Ricciardo continued to put more laps on the board but with more fuel load on board. Now with a heavier car he was still pushing the car but his pace had dropped to five and a half seconds off of his best flying lap set at this stage. For most of the field, this five to six seconds difference in terms of flying pace and high fuel pace was the norm and would suggest race pace tomorrow will be in this area for the early to mid race-laps.
But the race is tomorrow and qualifying is today and needs its own preparation in order to beat the Q1 and then Q2 drops to set up a place in the top-10 shoot-out.
With lower fuel levels and the medium tyres on, Williams were able to reduce the gap to Mercedes slightly with their early quali sim runs. But behind them surprisingly was Ferrari as the Scuderia team sat a second off Mercedes pace after their first flying lap.
After the first flying laps were posted, the times were rarely improved on, leaving Rosberg to top the final practice time sheet from Hamilton, with Ricciardo with half a second.
At the other end of the table, Will Stevens had the edge over his new team-mate Alex Rossi by two tenths in the battle not to finish last. While at McLaren, Jenson finished the session in 12th with Alonso in 16th despite the McLaren crew forced to retire Button’s car while the session was still underway to change the floor.