Nico Rosberg narrowly edged out Lewis Hamilton at the top of the timesheets in Friday practice for the Japanese GP.
The two Mercedes drivers were split by less than a tenth of a second with Rosberg just ahead following a lap of 1:32.250.
Rosberg was also the faster of the two title rivals in Practice One although Hamilton out-paced his team-mate when he was running on the hard compound and Rosberg was using the mediums.
Tyre supplier Pirelli joked it required a cigarette paper to measure the performance gap between Hamilton and Rosberg after they had both switched to the softs.
“They are both in great shape,” reported Mercedes technical chief Paddy Lowe.
Hamilton is running the engine he used last month in Singapore after his power unit blew when he was leading the Malaysia GP a week ago. Following his Sepang blow-out, Hamilton can be certain of winning the world championship this year only if he wins all five of the remaining races.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was third quickest, around three tenths adrift of Rosberg’s benchmark, and ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. But the Dutchman produced encouraging long-run pace to suggest that Mercedes’ single-lap pace advantage wouldn’t necessarily be carried over to race day. “We looked very good on the hard tyres,” acknowledged Verstappen.
Sepang victor Daniel Ricciardo was merely 12th in the timesheets after his qualifying simulation was interrupted by the deployment of the Virtual Safety Car when Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas car broke down. “But Kimi’s lap looked solid and even if we had completed my lap I’m not sure l would have beaten it,” admitted Ricciardo.
Fernando Alonso’s McLaren maintained the team’s recent improvement by reaching the top ten. But Jenson Button struggled and ended the day just 16th after failing to set a clean lap.
Force India emerged as the best of the rest with Sergio Perez sixth, one place ahead of team-mate Nico Hulkenberg.
Renault target Carlos Sainz was tenth for Toro Rosso.