FASTEST AT SUZUKA: Nico Rosberg sets the pace during the first practice session for the 2016 Japanese GP at the Suzuka International Circuit .Image: AP / Eugene Hoshiko
Suzuka, Japan - Nico Rosberg kept the pressure on wounded team-mate Lewis Hamilton on Friday by clocking the fastest time in the first free practice ahead of the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix.
Rosberg, who has a 23-point championship lead over Hamilton with five races left this season, pipped the Formula 1 world champion by 0.215 seconds as the two Mercedes topped the time sheets in the Suzuka sunshine.
Rosberg struck an early psychological blow as he goes for his fourth win in five races, despite complaining of "monster understeer" during the early jousting, recording a best lap of one minute, 32.431 seconds.
Hamilton, by contrast, has had a tumultuous few days after a blown engine robbed the triple world champion of victory last weekend.
Hamilton, who had hinted that his Malaysian heartbreak was a result of sabotage from within the Mercedes garage, barked over the radio that his car was "very low on power" in Friday's morning session.
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel was third quickest, just over a second off Rosberg's pace, with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen fourth.
The Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were next after their stunning one-two finish in Malaysia.
There was drama for McLaren's Fernando Alonso, running Honda's latest engine at the Japanese manufacturer's home race, as the Spaniard skidded off at the devilish "Spoon" curve and mangled his rear wing.
That prompted McLaren mechanics to ask politely: "Fernando, I see you've gone off, are you able to get back to the pits?"
'The brake doesn't brake'
Romain Grosjean also smashed his Haas into the crash barriers but avoided turning the air blue after recently promising to stop being "an a##hole in the car".
Instead, the Frenchman stuck to the facts as he reversed out of the gravel, reporting: "The brake doesn't brake."
All eyes will be on Rosberg and Hamilton in Friday afternoon's second session as Hamilton looks to bounce back from a nightmare week and complete a hat-trick of Suzuka victories.
Mercedes blamed Hamilton's third engine failure of the year on a bearing failure and he will revert to the engine he used in Singapore this weekend.
Rosberg will use the same power unit he ran in Malaysia, but Mercedes have put safeguards in place to avoid more technical mishaps in Japan by introducing "conservative" engine specifications.
2016 Japanese Grand Prix: First practice times
1. Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes 1min32.431
2. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes 1min32.646
3. Sebastian Vettel (GER) Ferrari 1min33.525
4. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari 1min33.817
5. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Red Bull 1min34.112
6. Max Verstappen (NED) Red Bull 1min34.379
7. Nico Hlkenberg (GER) Force India 1min34.530
8. Sergio Perez (MEX) Force India 1min34.767
9. Fernando Alonso (ESP) McLaren 1min35.003
10. Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Williams 1min35.381
11. Daniil Kvyat (RUS) Toro Rosso 1min35.446
12. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) Toro Rosso 1min35.672
13. Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren 1min35.677
14. Romain Grosjean (FRA) Haas 1min35.688
15. Felipe Nasr (BRA) Sauber 1min35.967
16. Felipe Massa (BRA) Williams 1min36.169
17. Esteban Gutierrez (MEX) Haas 1min36.219
18. Marcus Ericsson (SWE) Sauber 1min36.294
19. Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Renault 1min36.822
20. Esteban Ocon (FRA) Manor 1min37.797
21. Pascal Wehrlein (GER) Manor 1min37.966
22. Jolyon Palmer (GBR) Renault 1min37.992