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Hamilton fastest in practice for Japanese GP

SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time in practice for the Japanese Grand Prix, edging teammate and Formula One rival Nico Rosberg on Friday.

Hamilton’s time of 1 minute, 35.078 seconds shortly after the halfway mark of the afternoon practice at the Suzuka circuit was 0.240 seconds ahead of Rosberg.

“The gap changes from track to track between us and other cars but it looks pretty good so far,” Hamilton said. “To come here at one of the most demanding tracks for downforce, and to be that competitive, is fantastic.”

Hamilton leads Rosberg by three points heading into Sunday’s race, having won the past two races. Neither driver has ever won at Suzuka.

Williams’ Valtteri Bottas was third fastest, followed by McLaren’s Jenson Button.

A powerful typhoon is approaching Japan but isn’t projected to hit the region until Monday. Rain is still in the forecast for race day.

“Qualifying is going to be very important as it’s quite difficult to overtake here,” Hamilton said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the weather; it’s such a challenging circuit but we always come to the weekend prepared for everything.”

Rosberg, who lost his championship lead to Hamilton last time out in Singapore, said the positive results in practice bode well for Sunday.

“We are very quick on one lap and also on high fuel levels,” Rosberg said. “My long run was very good this afternoon, so I’m quite confident for a good race here.”

Red Bull driver and reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, who has won four of the past five races at Suzuka, was fifth fastest followed by Ferrari pair Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso.

“We can definitely do better than fifth,” Vettel said. “But we may hit the limit when we get to third. Mercedes seem to be very quick around here but we can improve, especially on a short run. It would be nice to fight the Mercedes in the race. Who knows, if it rains?”

The practices featured plenty of incidents.

A red flag came out with three minutes left when Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso stopped on the exit of Spoon Curve. Race officials elected to end the session, as Vergne’s car was stranded on the track.

Vergne sat out the morning session to allow Dutch teenager Max Verstappen to make his F1 weekend debut. The 17-year-old completed 22 laps and finished 12th fastest before the Toro Rosso’s engine failed in the closing minutes.

Vettel’s Red Bull teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, was the early pacesetter but crashed on a right-hand turn before hitting the wall. He was unhurt but there was significant damage to the left-front of his car. Despite the crash, Ricciardo still ended up 10th overall thanks to his early pace.

Caterham driver Kamui Kobayashi and Sauber driver Esteban Gutierrez also had crashes.

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