Formula One: Lewis Hamilton avoids smash to top Japanese practice

Mercedes' driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates during the podium ceremony for the Formula One Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom circuit, in Sochi, on Sept 30, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

SUZUKA (AFP) - Lewis Hamilton limbered up for this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix by going fastest in Friday's (Oct 5) first free practice almost half a second quicker than Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

The Briton, who controversially took his eighth chequered flag of the season in Russia last week after Mercedes ordered Bottas to let him through, clocked 1min 28.691secs on super-soft tyres at Suzuka.

Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, now trailing Hamilton by 50 points with only five races left this season, was fifth fastest on the timesheets 0.994 seconds back.

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo set the third fastest lap with Ferarri's Kimi Raikkonen fourth quickest.

Hamilton, who whizzed into the pits on his scooter 10 minutes after the start of the morning's free practice, survived a hairy moment early on, reacting superbly to avoid smashing into Pierre Gasly's dawdling Toro Rosso on entry to the chicane.

The world champion gesticulated angrily at the Frenchman after pulling off the road and later needed to pit to resolve a technical glitch after a sensor alarm went off on his car's dashboard.

But despite his issue, Hamilton struck an important psychological blow.

Vettel, whose hopes of pipping Hamilton to a fifth Formula One world title look increasingly forlorn, needed to harvest as much data as possible with typhoon rains forecast for the weekend.

But his hopes of doing so were hindered when the German also had a near-miss with Gasly, already being investigated by stewards for the incident with Hamilton.

Former world champion Fernando Alonso went for a spin, his McLaren spitting up gravel as the Spaniard skidded off on turn nine, where Sergio Perez's Force India had also gone sideways earlier.

Max Verstappen rounded out the top six as Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari dominated once again.

Esteban Ocon's Force India was seventh fastest 1.9 seconds off the pace, followed by the Haas of Frenchman Romain Grosjean, with the Saubers of Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson completing the top 10.

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