Hamilton fastest in first practice for Japanese Grand Prix

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              Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain reacts to a baby during a fan meeting at the Suzuka Circuit ahead of the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix in Suzuka, central Japan, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018.(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Lewis Hamilton dominated practice for the Japanese Grand Prix on Friday, an early indication that the Formula One championship leader will be tough to beat in Sunday’s race.

After leading the morning practice, Hamilton clocked a time of 1 minute, 28.217 seconds in Friday’s second practice session, finishing 0.461 seconds ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel was third fastest.

“Every time we come to Suzuka, particularly over the past few years, the cars just get faster and faster,” Hamilton said. “They don’t make tracks like this anymore — there is very little room for runoff, a little touch of the grass and you’re off in the wall.”

With five races to go, Hamilton would move a step closer to winning a fifth world championship with a win in Suzuka, a race he has dominated in recent years.

Hamilton has won five of the last Formula One races and three of the last four at the Japanese Grand Prix.

After winning the Russian GP last week, Hamilton leads Vettel by 50 points. Even if Vettel wins all five remaining races, he’s not guaranteed to beat Hamilton.

“I just have to stay on it, keep working,” Hamilton said. “My team and I, we’re working so well together in fine-tuning this car.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was fourth followed by Vettel’s Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen in fifth. Verstappen’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo was slowest of the drivers from the top three teams, just 0.015 seconds behind Raikkonen.

“We have some work to do ahead of tomorrow,” said Verstappen. “I wasn’t totally satisfied with the feeling in the car today. Both short and long runs didn’t feel ideal.”

Force India’s Esteban Ocon was the quickest car outside the usual top three teams, finishing seventh ahead of Haas’s Romain Grosjean.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson finished ninth, with Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley rounding out the top 10.

Qualifying for Sunday’s race will be held on Saturday.