P2: Vettel quick, rivals spin
Sebastian Vettel hit the head of the timesheets for the first time in his potentially title-clinching weekend in Practice Two at Suzuka - but the session will be best remembered for yet more messy spins and crashes.
The World Champion, who needs to outscore Fernando Alonso by 23 points on Sunday to seal his fourth-straight drivers' crown with four races to spare, resumed his habitual position at the head of the order on the medium-tyre runs with his best time of 1:33.852 which was some 0.168s margin quicker than Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber and a further tenth faster than Mercedes' Nico Rosberg.
Arguably Vettel would have gone quicker still had he not been forced to back off on his opening fast lap, while P1 pacesetter Lewis Hamilton could point to more mitigating circumstances for his ultimate sixth-place finish after a mistake at the second Degner scuppered what should have been his benchmark lap.
Hamilton, however, did manage to avoid the perils that in truth dominated the whole of the opening day at Suzuka as a further host of drivers - including two big names - either spun or crashed out.
The most severe of these incidents involved the under-pressure Sergio Perez, the McLaren driver spinning after touching the Astroturf strip on the outside of Spoon corner and careering into a heavy side-on impact with the tyre barrier which measured 18g.
After swiftly confirming over the radio that he was "okay", the 23-year-old was taken to the circuit medical centre for the mandatory check-up after such a heavy accident, but the damage to his race preparations - he completed just eight laps - may well be more lasting.
Two other drivers also had their sessions cut short by accidents. After being pitched into a spin by a loose rear wheel on his Williams in P1, Pastor Maldonado then crashed at the tricky second Degner on just his sixth lap of the afternoon, the Venezuelan crumpling the front of his FW35.
Kimi Raikkonen at least managed to set some representative times - the Finn ultimately finished fourth fastest - but spun out of his race simulation when he lost the back end of his E21 at the Dunlop Curve and his car got trapped in the gravel trap.
And underlining that even the sport's best drivers can be caught out by Suzuka's narrow and unforgiving confines, Alonso also had a spin after whacking the apex kerb at the first Degner. While a rare error by his standards, the Spaniard reacted impressively and expertly manouevered his way out of trouble although the spin meant he still lost out on the chance for a medium-tyre run. He therefore rounded out the top ten.
With Raikkonen keeping hold of fourth, his in-form team-mate Romain Grosjean finished just behind on the timesheets, just ahead of Hamilton, with Daniel Ricciardo showing strong pace to snare seventh for Toro Rosso.
Although Alonso's spin meant he was undoubtedly out of position down in tenth, Ferrari's prospects for a stronger weekend than Korea didn't appear to particularly bode well in P2 as Felipe Massa could only manage eighth. However, the Brazilian's later race pace on the medium tyres was more in line with that of Lotus, and quicker than Mercedes, although several tenths adrift of Red Bull's.
Jenson Button was best of the rest again for McLaren in ninth ahead of Alonso, Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber), Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) and the other Sauber of Nico Hulkenberg.