Jenson Button celebrated the extension of his McLaren contract by posting the fastest time in opening free practice for the Japanese Grand Prix, while F1 title 'rival' Sebastian Vettel ended his session in the barriers at the Degner Curves.
Button, who inked a multi-year deal with McLaren on the eve of the event, featured towards the top of the times throughout the sun-blessed 90-minute session, and had just returned to P1 when Vettel made an ignominious exit in the dying seconds. The Red Bull driver still ended up third fastest behind the two McLarens, with Lewis Hamilton claiming second spot behind team-mate Button as the silver machines proved to be the class of the field.
While few will read anything into the relative performances, the results will come as a boost to Button and Hamilton, with the former clinging to the last vestiges of a title bid, although he requires Vettel to post five successive DNFs - something he has not endured all season - while winning each remaining round. The German's late faux pas
will also be taken with a pinch of salt, however, as it is not the first time that Vettel has damaged a car in FP1..... and then gone on to dominate qualifying and the race.
The injuries this time were notably less severe than Turkey, for example, as Vettel ran wide in the first part of the corner - which, incidentally, has claimed more than its share of big names in recent years - and was unable to get the RB7 back on track before it skated into the barriers in part two. The ensuing light contact appeared to happen in slow motion and damage was confined to the nose section, with Vettel appearing more concerned that the subsequent rescue attempt may be displaying a little too much underfloor detail for Red Bull's liking.....
Button ended the morning with a 1min 33.634secs benchmark, with Hamilton just 0.091secs slower in second place. The margin back to Vettel was more significant, as almost half a second separated the remaining championship protagonists, while the German had three-tenths on anyone else. Fernando Alonso was fourth fastest for Ferrari, while Vettel's RBR team-mate, Mark Webber, rounded out the top five, fully 0.792secs off Button's pace.
The Briton's P1 aside, the biggest surprise of the session came from Toro Rosso, which saw both its cars feature inside the top ten. Jaime Alguersuari, reprising his Spa form as well as celebrating the success of his maiden musical venture, wound up sixth fastest, albeit half a second behind Webber, with Sebastien Buemi in eighth, the pair sandwiching the other Ferrari of Felipe Massa and all three more than a second off the pace.
Indeed, everyone else was more than two
seconds slower than Button, with Michael Schumacher, in ninth, only managing a 1min 36.033secs best during the session. Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, meanwhile, was down in 16th and fully two seconds slower again.
Between the two Silver Arrows, Renault bounced back from its Singapore nightmare with Vitaly Petrov and Bruno Senna sitting together in tenth and eleventh, comfortably ahead of the ongoing Force India-Sauber squabble, which continued with Nico Hulkenberg leading a nicely alternating quartet comprising Kamui Kobayashi, Paul di Resta and Sergio Perez. Four-tenths covered the four drivers, although Hulkenberg will expect to slip further down the overall order after FP2, in which Adrian Sutil will return to the cockpit.
Behind Rosberg, Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado filled 17th and 18th places for Williams after both going off track during the session, but finished ahead of the usual 'bottom six', which was headed by the Lotus pairing of Jarno Trulli and Karun Chandhok - the Indian enjoying an outing in place of Heikki Kovalainen. The remaining places were filled in two-by-two fashion by the Virgins of Timo Glock and Jerome d'Ambrosio and HRTs of Daniel Ricciardo and Narain Karthikeyan, the latter getting a pre-India warm-up in place of Tonio Liuzzi but lapping over six-tenths off his rookie team-mate.