Nico Rosberg set the bar for Mercedes during the first free practice on Friday. Picture: Toru Hanai / Reuters

Suzuka, Japan - World championship leader Nico Rosberg set the pace ahead of team-mate Lewis Hamilton as Mercedes dominated Friday's opening session of practice for the Japanese Grand Prix.

Rosberg set the bar at 1m32.431s, 0.215s quicker than Hamilton, on a pleasant and sunny morning at the Suzuka circuit.

 

The Mercedes pair were a second clear of the Ferrari duo of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen who were third and fourth fastest, respectively.

Vettel heads into the weekend carrying a three-place grid penalty for tipping Rosberg into a spin at the start of the previous race in Malaysia.

Rosberg extended his lead over Hamilton to 23 points in the overall standings after Hamilton was forced to retire from a comfortable lead in the Sepang race 16 laps from the finish.

As a result, Hamilton heads into Sunday's Japanese round desperately needing to revive his flagging title hopes with just five races remaining by clinching a third consecutive win at the Suzuka circuit.

Alonso into the tyre wall

Daniel Ricciardo, who inherited the win from Hamilton following his retirement in Malaysia, was fifth fastest.

Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen, who claimed second behind the Australian to secure the team's first one-two finish since the 2013 season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, was sixth.

Force India, locked in a battle for fourth in the overall team standings with Williams, showed a strong initial turn of speed.

Nico Hulkenberg was seventh-fastest for the Silverstone-based squad, ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez, who trialled the 'halo' cockpit protection device.

Fernando Alonso, hoping to impress on home soil for Honda, his McLaren team's engine supplier, was ninth, after surviving an early collision with the barriers when his car snapped out of control on the entry to the fast Spoon corner and slid backwards into the tyre wall lining the track.

Results

1 Nico Rosberg (Germany) Mercedes - 1:32.431

2 Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes - 1:32.646

3 Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Ferrari - 1:33.525

4 Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Ferrari - 1:33.817

5 Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Red Bull - 1:34.112

6 Max Verstappen (Netherlands) Red Bull - 1:34.379

7 Nico Huelkenberg (Germany) Force India - 1:34.530

8 Sergio Perez (Mexico) Force India - 1:34.767

9 Fernando Alonso (Spain) McLaren - 1:35.003

10 Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Williams - 1:35.381

11 Daniil Kvyat (Russia) Toro Rosso - 1:35.446

12 Carlos Sainz Jr (Spain) Toro Rosso - 1:35.672

13 Jenson Button (Britain) McLaren - 1:35.677

14 Romain Grosjean (France) Haas - 1:35.688

15 Felipe Nasr (Brazil) Sauber - 1:35.967

16 Felipe Massa (Brazil) Williams - 1:36.169

17 Esteban Gutierrez (Mexico) Haas - 1:36.219

18 Marcus Ericsson (Sweden) Sauber - 1:36.294

19 Kevin Magnussen (Denmark) Renault - 1:36.822

20 Esteban Ocon (France) Manor - 1:37.797

21 Pascal Wehrlein (Germany) Manor - 1:37.966

22 Jolyon Palmer (Britain) Renault - 1:37.992

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