NASCAR & Auto Racing

Ferrari, McLaren in front in first practice for Japanese Grand Prix

OYAMA, Japan – Ferrari and McLaren dominated practice Friday for the Japanese Grand Prix – the first to be held at Fuji Speedway in 30 years.

Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa drove their Ferraris to the top of qualifying during early practice, only to be overtaken by feuding McLaren duo Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in the afternoon.

The race will be the first at Fuji Speedway in 30 years. The circuit is replacing the venue at Suzuka, whose contract ran out last year. Near the picturesque Mount Fuji, it last hosted a Formula One race in 1977 and the circuit has been renovated to prepare for the modern version of the sport – but is proving a tough challenge for the drivers.

Raikkonen and Massa, who were 1-2 in the last race in Belgium, picked up where they left off with the top times. Raikkonen did 1 minute 19.119 seconds with Massa at 1:19.498.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, driving to gain points for themselves and not the team, were third and fourth. Alonso was at 1:19.667 with Hamilton at 1:19.807.

“It’s obviously always a challenge to get to know a new track,” Hamilton said. “But I have tried that three times this year.”

In the afternoon Hamilton led with 1:18.734 as the drivers became used to the new design. Alonso was at 1:18.798 with Massa at 1:19.483. Raikkonen was fifth with 1:19.714.

“I don’t think much of the times today,” Alonso said. “On Saturday in qualifying it is one-tenth (difference) between the four drivers.”

Raikkonen is looking to build on his win at Belgium. He and Alonso have four wins apiece while Massa and Hamilton have three each, with all 14 races so far going to Ferrari or McLaren.

Jarno Trulli of Toyota, the only team to actually run on the track before practice, was fourth in the afternoon at 1:19.711. Toyota, which owns the track, had a demonstration last year and Ralf Schumacher, Trulli’s teammate, drove on the track.

Two-time defending Formula One world champion Alonso has beaten Hamilton in five of the last six races, and the British driver has 97 standings points. His one-time 14-point lead has shrunk to two.

“I walked the circuit with the engineers on Wednesday which always gives you an initial idea but today was when the real fun started,” Alonso said. “The track is very challenging but initially it was very dusty and the grip levels were low.”

Hamilton is clinging to the chance to become the first rookie to take the F1 title amid a tumultuous two months in which McLaren has become embroiled in a dispute over possession of technical data belonging to rival constructor Ferrari.

After being found guilty by world governing body FIA, McLaren is out of the constructors’ title race and fined $100 million.

Raikkonen won the last race in Belgium with Massa second. They now have 84 and 77 points.

Even though Raikkonen and Massa trail the McLaren drivers in the standings, Ferrari took its 15th team title when McLaren’s team points were withdrawn.

The drivers kept their points in return for providing evidence against McLaren during the meeting of the World Motor Council on Sept. 13 that was attended by Hamilton but not Alonso.