SUZUKA // On a track as slippery as a Japanese eel, Sebastian Vettel on Friday showed he is not infallible, as he is often portrayed. The Red Bull Racing driver gave himself the perfect reminder that, despite being on the cusp of sealing a second successive world championship, focus must be maintained.
The 24-year-old German needs only one point in tomorrow's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit, 50km south-west of Nagoya, to secure the drivers title and become the sport's youngest double world champion.
He was convincing, on Thursday, that he was treating this weekend like every other and would be trying to win at Suzuka for a third successive year rather than simply aim to finish in the points and secure his latest record-breaking feat.
In Friday's first practice session, however, he finished squarely in the safety barriers. Fortunately for his engineers, the damage was limited.
"I had a good reminder this morning in practice not to start thinking about something else," Vettel said after recovering to finish third-fastest in the afternoon session.
"At that moment, I was not 100 per cent awake, and mistakes around here can be quite costly. I went off, tried to come back, tried to slow the car down as much as possible, but didn't make it and hit the wall slightly."
He crashed on the infamous Turn 8 in Istanbul - again in free practice - and spun off at his home race in July, but recovered to finish second, as he did in Montreal when he was put under immense pressure in the wet by the eventual winner, Jenson Button, and ran wide on the final lap to give the Briton the weekend.
With nine wins from 14 races, Vettel leads the standings by 124 points with five races remaining. Only Button can stop his coronation tomorrow - and the McLaren-Mercedes driver showed he is willing to give it his able best by topping the time sheets in both sessions.
"It's always fun driving around Suzuka, particularly when you have a good car beneath you," the Briton said.
"This is an amazing circuit. The first sector is phenomenal; there is no rest - I don't think you breathe through that whole sector. It's all about getting it together and finding a balance that lets you flow through there. But the important thing for us is to get the car sorted and ready to challenge for victory."
Button's first challenge Saturday is to try to stop Red Bull's qualifying dominance.
The team are on track to become the first to claim pole position at every race in a season, with it being 11 months since anyone other than a Red Bull started a grand prix from the front. Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was second in the afternoon session, just 0.174 seconds behind Button, yet the Spaniard was not getting too excited about his chances of fighting for a victory this weekend and pointed towards the previous race in Singapore as an example.
He did, however predict plenty of on-track action Sunday.
"This year we have seen all the teams go through so many highs and lows, with the exception of Red Bull," Alonso said. "It's happened before that the first day has been [positive] like this and then we have not managed to do any better than fifth in qualifying. What we can say is that the feeling from today is a little bit more encouraging than in previous races. We hope to be able to fight with McLaren and Red Bull, but we know it won't be easy."
It was a narrow escape, yet he remained unfazed, eventually finishing 16th in the time sheets.
"My lap time obviously doesn't look good, because I spun in a fast corner when I had my fresh set of soft tyres," he said. "Overall, I think we can improve the balance of the car, and also our pace when we now go to look for the best possible solutions for what we have learnt."
UAE TV: Qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix will be aired at 9am on Abu Dhabi Sports