SUZUKA, Japan -- Sebastian Vettel set the fastest time in the opening practice session for the Japanese Grand Prix as Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull all looked competitive over a single lap.
After two missed opportunities at the last two races, Vettel is in need of a victory at Suzuka and got his weekend off to a good start with a quick lap 0.211s faster than title rival Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo was third fastest in the Red Bull with a time 0.375s off Vettel.
Ferrari waited until later in the session to set a quick lap, after a big accident split the running time around the 50 minute mark. Carlos Sainz lost the rear of his Toro Rosso on the exit kerb of Suzuka's hairpin and the resulting wheelspin spat him into the inside barrier. The impact destroyed the front left and folded the wheel underneath the car, tossing it into the air before it came to a halt in the middle of the track.
After a 15 minute red flag period, the session resumed with 25 minutes on the clock and at that point Vettel set about his quick laps on the super-soft tyres. Hamilton and Ricciardo had already set their low-fuel times before the session was suspended, with the Red Bull holding the edge in the middle sector while Mercedes was the team to beat in the final sector.
Vettel set new fastest first and second sectors on his lap and may have completed the set had he not come across the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson in the final few corners of the lap. He waved his hands in the air in protest at the Swedish driver but still set the fastest time regardless. Rain in the last 10 minutes of the session effectively cut it short ahead of a wet forecast for the second practice session in the afternoon.
F1's two Finns were fourth and fifth, with Kimi Raikkonen 0.472s off Ferrari teammate Vettel and Valtteri Bottas 0.985s off the pace in the second Mercedes. Both Mercedes were running the team's latest aero package, which was removed from Hamilton's car in Malaysia ahead of qualifying after he suspected it was costing him performance.
Max Verstappen was sixth fastest in the Red Bull ahead of the Force India of Esteban Ocon, Renault's Nico Hulkenberg and the Haas of Romain Grosjean. Stoffel Vandoorne rounded out a mixed top ten in the McLaren-Honda ahead of Kevin Magnussen in the second Haas and teammate Fernando Alonso in 12th. Williams looks set for another struggle after Lance Stroll and Felipe Massa were 14th and 16th fastest, while Sainz's accident means Toro Rosso's true pace is still something of a mystery with the Spaniard and teammate Pierre Gasly 17th and 18th ahead of the Saubers.