Lewis Hamilton returned to the top of the timesheets at the scene of possibly his best Formula One performance as he headed the opening practice session for Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway.

The Briton, who won in appalling conditions in 2007, paced a close-fought 90-minute session on a dry circuit as the expected contenders massed at the sharp end of the field. Hamilton's advantage over second-placed Felipe Massa was just 0.153secs, while 29 of the 20 cars in action were covered by less than two seconds.

Heading the timesheets for the final half an hour, Hamilton ended the morning with a benchmark of 1min 18.910secs, with Massa leading a chasing quartet comprised of Heikki Kovalainen, in the second McLaren, Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and Singapore GP winner Fernando Alonso, with the Spaniard a fraction over half a second off the pace.

Despite the near perfect weather - sunshine graced Fuji throughout the 90 minutes - nearly all the frontrunners pushed hard to find their limits after spending almost all of last year's event in, at best, damp conditions, with Hamilton, Raikkonen and Massa all suffering off-track 'moments' of varying degrees.

Behind the top five, Nelson Piquet Jr turned in the sort of performance he will need to maintain throughout the weekend - and those in both China and Brazil - if he is to keep his seat at Renault. The Brazilian was a handful of tenths shy of team-mate Alonso, but ended the session ahead of Sebastian Vettel - impressive again in the Toro Rosso despite being the first driver more than a second shy of Hamilton - Robert Kubica, Sebastien Bourdais - mirroring his STR team-mate - and Kazuki Nakajima, who gave the home fans something to cheer by taking a top ten spot.

Adrian Sutil, perhaps the current F1 driver with the greatest knowledge of Fuji, also showed what he and Force India might be capable of by posting the eleventh best time, although the young German joined the big guns on the list of those with misdemeanours against their name. Piquet and Bourdais also erred, but it was only Nick Heidfeld who actually spun during the session.

The BMW Sauber driver, confirmed this week for another season at Hinwil, ended the 90 minutes down in 14th spot behind Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber, but had Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button, Timo Glock and David Coulthard behind him and all within two seconds of Hamilton. Only the second Force India of Giancarlo Fisichella fell outside that bracket.