Sebastian Vettel was unable to continue at the head of the F1 field as the Japanese Grand Prix
weekend wrapped up its practice phase, but Red Bull
team-mate Mark Webber
stepped into the breach to deny Mercedes a return to P1.
The world champion-elect had been among the frontrunners before being sidelined by a suspected KERS issue, which kept him off track as his rivals ramped up their efforts ahead of qualifying. Vettel would wind up only ninth on the final timesheets, but was only 0.9secs off the pace and remains a threat for pole position this afternoon.
Vettel's absence from the track when others improved their times allowed team-mate Webber to underline his own affinity with the Suzuka layout, the Australian lapping in 1min 32.053secs to reset the benchmark for the weekend.
Conditions were very different to Friday's practice sessions and, whilst still dry and warm, a strong wind caused the drivers problems at various corners. Both McLarens were hitting the rev limiter well before the end of the main straight, while Lotus' Romain Grosjean
lead a raft of drivers overshooting at the chicane as they found their approach speed enhanced by the breeze at their back.
The two Degner curves also continued to cause problems, with Lewis Hamilton
among those to take to the dirt there. Unlike some more unfortunate rivals on Friday, the Briton escaped without serious damage – although his off did prompt an unscheduled return to the pits for a floor check – and he was able to clinch second spot behind Webber with his final flying lap.
The Briton's effort deposed Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg
from P2, and again marked the Three Pointed Star as Red Bull's biggest rival for honours in Japan.
Rosberg ended the session three-tenths off the pace, but still comfortably ahead of fourth-placed Grosjean, who had the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso
and Felipe Massa
snapping at his heels, with Jenson Button
and Kimi Raikkonen
closely matched as they filled the final spots ahead of Vettel, who completed just eight laps and did not get the chance to run on the softer option tyre.
The top ten was completed by Nico Hulkenberg, a solid effort after the German appeared to have been sidelined by another exhaust problem on his Sauber. Despite the amount of work required on his Sauber, the star of last weekend's Korean Grand Prix
was able to return and put in an improved lap at the end of the 60-minute session.
Behind Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez took eleventh place in his McLaren, the Mexican having had to revert to chassis #1 following his heavy FP2 shunt, while Toro Rosso
duo Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo, Pastor Maldonado
(Williams) and Paul di Resta (Force India) completed the top 15 within half a second of the McLaren.
The Scot's team-mate was not so lucky, Adrian Sutil
becoming the main victim of the session as he lost the rear of his car exiting Spoon and hitting the barriers hard enough to dislodge his front wing and rear suspension. Despite that, Sutil was able to take 18th spot, behind Esteban Gutierrez and Valtteri Bottas, but still ahead of the Caterhams and Marussias that brought up the rear of the pack.