SUZUKA (Reuters) - Formula One championship leaders Red Bull dominated first practice for the Japanese Grand Prix on Friday while fired-up title contender Lewis Hamilton crashed his McLaren early in the session.
Germany’s Sebastian Vettel, last year’s winner at the Honda-owned circuit, lapped with a fastest time of one minute 32.585 seconds on a dry track with the sun shining through morning cloud.
His Australian team mate Mark Webber, the championship leader who is 11 points clear of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso with four races remaining including Sunday’s, was second and 0.048 slower.
Renault’s Robert Kubica was the best of the rest, more than half a second slower than Vettel as Red Bull’s rivals saw their fears realised.
“This weekend for me, the Red Bulls will be a good half a second in front of people,” Williams’ experienced Brazilian Rubens Barrichello had told reporters on Thursday.
McLaren, vowing to throw everything ‘including the kitchen sink’ at their car in an all-out bid to overtake Red Bull, showed some signs of improvement with Hamilton on the pace before crashing at Degner.
The McLaren went wide through the double right-hander, skipped over the gravel and side-swiped the tyre wall before coming to a halt under the bridge with the front left wheel hanging limply.
Hamilton stepped out, shaking his head but keeping his yellow helmet on to hide his undoubted fury at having to sit out the remaining 45 minutes.
The 2008 champion, who had spoken earlier about his determination to be as aggressive as ever at the sweeping figure of eight circuit, then returned to the paddock and avoided reporters.
The Briton had arrived in Japan with plenty of new bits on his car and determined to end a dismal run of three retirements in four races that saw him plunge from overall leader to third and 20 points adrift of Webber.
He could at least take heart from being briefly fastest before the crash, with what was still the fifth best time at the end of the session.
British team mate and reigning champion Jenson Button, mobbed by fans on his arrival at the circuit on Thursday hand-in-hand with Japanese lingerie model girlfriend Jessica Michibata, was 12th fastest.
He also went wide at Degner but avoided Hamilton’s fate. That was still quicker than Alonso, the double world champion who has won the last two races.
The Spaniard was 13th on the timing screens, two places behind Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa.
Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher, suffering in the Mercedes in his comeback season, was a morale-boosting eighth at one of his favourite circuits with team mate and fellow-German Nico Rosberg 10th.