F1 World Championship leader Lewis Hamilton signalled his firm intention to stamp his authority on both the Japanese Grand Prix and 2008 title chase in opening practice at Fuji Speedway this weekend, by outpacing chief rival Felipe Massa to end the first day as the top-placed contender for the crown.

The McLaren-Mercedes star was sublime at Fuji in 2007, keeping his head in torrential conditions to triumph in the first grand prix to be held there in three decades. With his duel for glory with Massa balanced precariously on a knife-edge entering the final three grands prix of the current campaign and seemingly little to choose between the pair, out-pointing the Brazilian in both sessions - including going quickest of all in the morning - preserved Hamilton's vital psychological edge.

"Fuji is a place I really enjoy," the 23-year-old acknowledged. "It's not the easiest of tracks because it requires a good set-up to get the best from the car, but I had no complaints today. We were immediately on the pace, and found a very good balance straightaway. In the afternoon I did a promising longer run with no major problems, and I feel confident about our pace for the rest of the weekend."

Crucial to Hamilton's title challenge will be the back-up of Heikki Kovalainen, and in what looks set to be a supremely closely-matched field this weekend the three tenths deficit separating the Finn from his British team-mate - fairly characteristic of the 2008 season as a whole - meant six positions in the order, whereas countryman Kimi Raikkonen supported Massa perfectly in fifth.

"Today was a pretty straightforward practice day with no major problems," an unflustered Kovalainen underlined afterwards. "We successfully went through our tyre comparison programme, which went well.

"We made some good progress with the set-up into the afternoon, and that also made me feel a lot more confident about attacking this place. I don't think today's times are totally representative, but we're certainly in good shape for the rest of the weekend."

Whilst this time twelve months ago Fuji was very much a McLaren circuit, this year it is difficult to know which way the pendulum will swing, with Ferrari having out-paced the Silver Arrows in Valencia and Singapore of late - both venues where the latter were expected to hold the upper hand. With just a single point separating the two teams in the constructors' standings, every point from hereon in will be absolutely critical.

"Today we conducted two trouble-free sessions," summarised the Woking-based outfit's team principal Ron Dennis, "encountering no problems with either of our cars. [It was] a normal day at the office, you could say.

"Having said that, whomever I talk to in our team, I notice the same thing - we're more together, more focused, more committed and more motivated than ever before.

"There's a tremendous feeling of comradeship - in our garage and in our hospitality units here at Fuji, and of course back in Woking, in Brixworth and in Stuttgart - and that comradeship, that will to win, will persist throughout this race weekend and throughout the final two weekends of the season too."

"That didn't look bad," added Mercedes-Benz Motorsport vice-president Norbert Haug, "and we are quite satisfied with the outcome of today's practice. Our long runs in race trim were fast and consistent, with both the option and the prime tyres.

"It's all looking positive; however, we don't yet know what the opposition has in-store for us. Only one fact seems to be sure - the weather will be better than it was last year."


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