Jenson Button showed that he was not about to let his tenure as Japanese Grand Prix winner slip away quietly as he set the pace in the first of three free practice sessions around the swoops of Suzuka on Friday morning.

The Briton, who took an emotional victory at his favourite F1 venue a year ago, replaced McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton at the top of the times early in the 90-minute session, and his 1min 34.507secs best remained unbeatable despite the best efforts of this behind him.

Hamilton's riposte was good enough only to secure a 1-2 at the head of the times for McLaren - the team he is leaving for Mercedes in 2013 - and the 2008 world champion still trailed his countryman by a couple of tenths when the chequered flag fell. Any intention of attempting a final assault in the closing minutes was stymied by a yellow flag to recover, somewhat ironically, a stranded Mercedes from the side of the track, but Hamilton will no doubt be relieved to see that, for the moment anyway, McLaren remains the car to beat as he attempts to close down Fernando Alonso's points lead.

The Ferrari driver was nowhere to be seen on Friday morning, his best effort good enough only for eleventh spot on the timesheets, leaving Red Bull and Mercedes to put the greatest pressure on the top two. Mark Webber, another to enjoy racing at Suzuka, was third fastest, three-tenths off Button's best, with Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher next up to round out the top five. It was Rosberg's car that stopped in the closing moments, with oil pressure cited as the cause, but the German had just enough in hand to stave off the late challenge from his elder countryman as both trailed Button by more than half a second.

Kamui Kobayashi gave the home crowd something to cheer as he pushed his Sauber into sixth spot, although he appeared close to the limit from time to time. Team-mate Sergio Perez, the driver already tabbed to replace Hamilton at McLaren next season, was down in twelfth, having had moments of his own, notably exiting the 130R.

Between the two Saubers, Felipe Massa suggested that he could be a foil to Alonso's attempts to hold on to top spot in the championship by putting the second Ferrari into seventh, ahead of the two Force Indias, which again made a good impression in the hands of Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg. Pastor Maldonado rounded out the top ten for Williams.

Lotus, despite debuting its double DRS 'device' among a rash of other aero updates, made a typically slow start to the weekend, with Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean back in 13th and 14th respectively, with the Toro Rossos of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne next up, ahead of world champion, and winner last time out in Singapore, Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas, who again got a chance to replace Bruno Senna in the Williams line-up for FP1.

Timo Glock showed that his - and Marussia's - form in Singapore was no fluke by again out-pacing the Caterhams, with Charles Pic sandwiching the best of the green-and-gold machines, driven by Vitaly Petrov, in 20th place. The Russian was partnered on this occasion by reserve Giedo van der Garde, whose presence in Heikki Kovalainen's car gave rise to rumours about the Finn's future. van der Garde's inexperience, both of the F1 machine and Suzuka itself, showed as he slotted in between the two HRTs, led this time around by Narain Karthikeyan.



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