SUZUKA: Max Verstappen went fastest on Friday in the first practice for the Japanese Grand Prix, as he looks to put one hand on his third straight Formula One title this weekend.
Red Bull's Verstappen, who leads teammate and nearest rival Sergio Perez by 151 points in the championship standings, was first out onto the Suzuka track in dry but humid conditions.
He reeled off a quickest lap of 1min 31.647sec -- 0.626sec faster than second-place Carlos Sainz of Ferrari, who won last weekend's Singapore Grand Prix.
Verstappen cannot clinch the title on Sunday but a favourable result can set him up to seal the deal at the Qatar Grand Prix next month.
The Dutchman is looking to bounce back from a disappointing fifth-place finish in Singapore that ended his record streak of 10 straight wins.
He was quick to lay down a marker in his first practice at Suzuka, and aimed a barb at George Russell after coming up behind his slow-moving Mercedes.
“That Mercedes was so dangerous in the way there,“ Verstappen said on his team radio.
Russell, who crashed on the final lap as he went for the win in Singapore last week, had two wheels over the white line as Verstappen approached him.
McLaren's Lando Norris, who finished second in Singapore, was third-fastest at 1min 32.392sec.
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc was fourth, AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda was fifth in his home grand prix, and Fernando Alonso was sixth in his Aston Martin.
Lance Stroll was back in action after missing the Singapore race, following a huge crash in qualifying that destroyed his Aston Martin.
Slight rain began to fall at the end of the practice session, although Sunday's race is forecast to be dry. - AFP