SUZUKA (Japan) • The river ran across the Formula One track as fans in the sparse grandstand huddled in their soaked raincoats.
The memories of a dark and wet Suzuka were heightened yesterday by conditions that replicated that day a year ago when Jules Bianchi had a crash that would ultimately take his life.
Practice for the Japanese Grand Prix was a grim, stuttering affair punctuated by showers that had teams seeking the sanctuary of their garages, peeping out only to make sure their complex hybrid engine systems were in place.
Lewis Hamilton had wanted to run his Mercedes hard to be sure that the glitch that ended his Singapore Grand Prix and interrupted his triumphant march to a third World Championship last weekend had been eradicated.
But the weather hampered any attempt at useful practice.
Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, his Mercedes team-mate, completed only eight laps apiece in the afternoon session.
At least the time sheets pointed to a return to dominant form, with Red Bull's Daniil Kvyat topping them by clocking 1min 48.277sec.
Rosberg was 0.023sec back and Hamilton a further half-second slower.
Sebastian Vettel, who revelled in the setbacks of his Mercedes rivals to win in Singapore, steered his Ferrari to the fifth-quickest lap.
But only today's practice and qualifying, hopefully conducted in the dry, will be a true guide as to what lies ahead this weekend.
Rain had created havoc in the morning practice when only 12 drivers completed a timed lap as they struggled to keep control of their aquaplaning cars.
Mercedes, looking to fix a mysterious loss of pace in Singapore last weekend, shot out to the quickest times in the second session.
However, Kvyat backed up an impressive early display by edging ahead of Rosberg.
But, just as things began hotting up, the rain returned to send the cars back to their garages.
When Hamilton finally emerged on wet tyres, he was warned over the radio "be mindful of the rivers", so soggy were the conditions.
The Briton, who suffered his first retirement in over a year last week but still boasts a 41-point championship lead with six races left, expressed frustration that yesterday had turned into little more than an exercise in data analysis.
"You don't want to take too many risks, damaging the car," he told Sky Sports.
"Today, we were just practising starts and getting a couple of laps in - but there wasn't really an awful lot to learn."
Vettel corrected a heart-stopping slide through a quick right-hander as he ran fourth in the morning.
Rosberg also survived a couple of early scares in a hair-raising first practice, braking late into the chicane and sliding onto the run-off.
The drivers and teams gathered in Suzuka will hope that, over the weekend, there will be no further reminders of what Hamilton called "a dark day".
Bianchi was just 25 and on the threshold of a great career in F1 when his Marussia car ran through a stream flowing across the Suzuka track in the Japanese Grand Prix last year. His car then slammed into the back of a recovery truck in the dank darkness . He died in July after nine months in a coma.
THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE PRESSE-FRANCE
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX
Practice 3: Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, 10.55am