Japanese Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton ahead as typhoon threatens

Championship leader Lewis Hamilton stayed ahead of Mercedes teammate and rival Nico Rosberg in Friday`s Japanese Grand Prix practice as teenager Max Verstappen became the youngest Formula One driver.

Japanese Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton ahead as typhoon threatens

Tokyo: Championship leader Lewis Hamilton stayed ahead of Mercedes teammate and rival Nico Rosberg in Friday`s Japanese Grand Prix practice as teenager Max Verstappen became the youngest Formula One driver.

Verstappen, at 17 years and three days, managed the 12th fastest time in the opening practice before engine trouble forced him out in a cloud of smoke.

Hamilton set the best lap time of 1min 35.078sec, 0.240sec faster than Rosberg, on a day of multiple crashes in which the Briton also had a scare.

Mercedes have an outside chance of claiming the constructor`s title at the Suzuka race and the times set by their British and German drivers, fierce rivals all season, pointed to another high-speed duel on Sunday.

Typhoon Phanphone, which is bearing down on Japan, is threatening to barge into their plans however. Torrential rain is predicted for Sunday which could force organisers to bring forward the start by a few hours.

Bad weather could have a new topsy-turvy impact on the championship, finely balanced with Hamilton leading Rosberg by three points in the championship standings with five races remaining.

The rivals maintained their truce at Suzuka however, with both praising the work of Mercedes to keep them so competitive at vastly different tracks.

"It`s amazing what this team has done, to be able to come to one of the most demanding circuits for down-force and to be that competitive is fantastic," said Hamilton.

"The car didn`t feel spectacular this morning, but on the option tyre this afternoon it felt really good - except when I nearly went off!"

"I thought I was going off and into the barriers and I only just caught it," Hamilton said, explaining how he had caught and corrected his car during one of many heart-stopping incidents in a session with two red flags, several minor crashes and a series of errors.

Red Bull`s Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo took the blame for a big crash when he slid off the circuit at the final corner as he completed his first flying lap.

He careered through a gravel trap and hit the barriers with the left front corner of his Red Bull.

"I made a mistake," said Ricciardo. "I did my first quick lap and everyone is cooling after that, producing fast lap, slow lap and then fast again.

"On the slow lap, there was a yellow flag, so I went extra slow so that once I started my quick lap the yellow flag would have cleared and I would have been able to push.

"The tyres probably cooled too much and out of the last chicane I got on the power and had a few moments and just couldn`t catch it."

The second practice session at Suzuka ended early when Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne`s Toro Rosso also ground to a halt with smoke pouring from the rear, resulting in a red flag.

Japan`s Kamui Kobayashi also crashed his Caterham and Mexican Esteban Gutierrez lost control of his Sauber while Ferrari`s Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg of Force India both had minor run-offs as rain fell sporadically.

Verstappen, son of former Formula One racer Jos Verstappen, grabbed the spotlight in the first session when he took control of Vergne`s Toro Rosso. He will take over from the Frenchman from next season.

The teenager, who is not old enough to drive on public roads in his native Netherlands, pulled over after 21 laps.

"I have a problem in the engine," the Dutchman, who will replace Jean-Eric Vergne next season, radioed to his team. "I have smoke out of the engine. What should I do?"

He was still happy with his start.

"I was not even close to the limit," said Verstappen, who did not run in the second session. "I was just driving safely without doing any crazy stuff."

Off the track, attention continues to focus on the future of Spanish driver Pedro Alonso of Spain, who has been tipped for a move to McLaren.

Outgoing Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said at the Paris Motor Show that Alonso`s future was being discussed in Japan.

"If he says he will stay, we will be happy. If we decide together to end our collaboration, it will be in the best manner possible," he said.

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