SUZUKA (Japan) • Formula One championship leader Lewis Hamilton has warned his title rivals that his Mercedes machine is "back to normal" for the Japanese Grand Prix, after struggling for pace in Singapore and Malaysia.
The Briton splashed gingerly to the fastest time of a soaking second session after an absorbing morning run-out in Suzuka.
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel set the pace yesterday with a blistering drive in the morning's free practice before rain caused havoc in the afternoon.
Delayed by 50 minutes as rain lashed down, the afternoon looked like being a complete washout as team engineers amused themselves by floating paper boats along a river of water gushing down the pit lane.
When the cars did finally creep out, puddles made the going treacherous, but Hamilton steered his Mercedes to the quickest time of 1 minute and 48.719 seconds.
"It's been an interesting day," said Hamilton, who finished second to Red Bull's Max Verstappen in Malaysia after winning the Singapore Grand Prix. "The car is feeling much better than it was in Malaysia. It feels back to normal, so I'm ready to race."
Vettel topped the time sheets in a morning session, which was temporarily disrupted after Carlos Sainz smashed his Toro Rosso into a wall.
His time of 1:29.166 was almost 20 seconds quicker than Hamilton's wet run.
"The results were not the best the last couple of races, but I think we are strong so we have all reason to be confident," said the German, who finished fourth in Malaysia last weekend from the back of the grid. "I'm pretty sure on Sunday we will be able to show what we can do."
Vettel, four times a winner here with Red Bull, trails Hamilton by 34 points with five of the 20 races left this season and faces a potential must-win race tomorrow.
There was drama outside the figure-of-eight Japan circuit too.
Renault yesterday said that they have signed former F1 technical chief Marcin Budkowski as their new executive director, sparking a row over possible data leaks.
The bombshell move - confirmed before the Japanese Grand Prix - has triggered an angry backlash from Renault's rivals as he knows intimate details of the top teams from his previous role, which he left last week.
Renault said in a statement that Budkowski would "oversee all the activities in the development and production of the chassis".
In his former position with the sport's governing body the FIA, the Pole was responsible for liaising with teams to guarantee the compliance of their cars.
FIA officials had said Budkowski would serve three months of gardening leave before being released from his contract, but opposing teams fearful of potential skulduggery have blasted that time frame as being woefully short.
"There needs to be a proper element of garden leave before he takes all that knowledge to another team," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. "Three months is just crazy, for the top position it's nuts!"
F1 JAPANESE GP
Practice 3 & qualifying Singtel TV Ch115 & StarHub Ch209, 10.55am & 1.30pm