Picture: Toru Hanai / Reuters.

Suzuka, Japan - Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel pulled out a late flier around the Suzuka Circuit to set the pace ahead of Formula One title rival Lewis Hamilton in Friday's first practice session for the Japanese Grand Prix.

The German set a benchmark time of one minute, 29.166 seconds around 15 minutes from the end of the 90-minute session to edge out championship leader Hamilton by 0.211 seconds.

The Briton had occupied top spot on the timesheets in his Mercedes but Vettel was just 0.042 seconds using the slower soft tyres and went quicker once he switched to the stickier super-softs on an overcast morning with a constant threat of rain.

The German's pace, unleashed just as the rain intensified into a heavy drizzle, appears to have laid down an early marker of Ferrari's potential ahead of Sunday's race.

The four-time champion is due some luck after successive setbacks in the last two races have left him 34 points behind Hamilton in the overall standings with just five of the season's 20 races remaining.

Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who was fifth fastest, were both running an upgraded aerodynamic package but it was not immediately clear whether the reigning champions had rediscovered their lost speed in Suzuka's cooler conditions.

Mercedes had struggled for pace in the sweltering heat of Singapore and Malaysia, where the team was third fastest, but Hamilton made the most of his good fortune to claim a victory and a second to extend his championship lead.

Daniel Ricciardo continued Red Bull's resurgence with the third fastest time, albeit 0.375 seconds off Vettel's pace, while Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was fourth.

Max Verstappen, who won in Malaysia on Sunday, was sixth in the Red Bull with Force India's Esteban Ocon seventh.

Nico Hulkenberg was eighth for Renault, ahead of Haas driver Romain Grosjean and Stoffel Vandoorne set the 10th fastest time in his McLaren at power unit supplier Honda's home race.

The session did not pass without incident, however, as Carlos Sainz brought out the red flags after 51 minutes when the Spaniard crashed after losing control of his Toro Rosso at the exit of the turn 11 hairpin.

The Renault-bound Spaniard, already set for a hefty grid penalty for exceeding his power unit component allocation, walked away unscathed but his car came to a rest across the track, leading to a 16-minute delay as the debris was cleared.


1. Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Ferrari 1:29.166 

2. Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes 1:29.377 

3. Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Red Bull - TAG Heuer 1:29.541 

4. Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Ferrari 1:29.638 

5. Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Mercedes 1:30.151 

6. Max Verstappen (Netherlands) Red Bull - TAG Heuer 1:30.762 

7. Esteban Ocon (France) Force India - Mercedes 1:30.899 

8. Nico Huelkenberg (Germany) Renault 1:30.974 

9. Romain Grosjean (France) Haas - Ferrari 1:31.032 

10. Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium) McLaren 1:31.202 

11. Kevin Magnussen (Denmark) Haas - Ferrari 1:31.216 

12. Fernando Alonso (Spain) McLaren 1:31.235 

13. Sergio Perez (Mexico) Force India - Mercedes 1:31.530 

14. Lance Stroll (Canada) Williams-Mercedes 1:31.602 

15. Jolyon Palmer (Britain) Renault 1:31.757 

16. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Williams-Mercedes 1:31.912 

17. Carlos Sainz Jr (Spain) Toro Rosso - Renault 1:32.252 

18. Pierre Gasly (France) Toro Rosso - Renault 1:32.501 

19. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany) Sauber - Ferrari 1:32.897 

20. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden) Sauber - Ferrari 1:33.397