Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes set the pace in the opening practice session for the Japanese Grand Prix as Suzuka threw up its usual share of thrills and spills in FP1.
Hamilton's best time of 1:34.157 was 0.330s faster than team-mate Nico Rosberg and 0.611s clear of championship leader Sebastian Vettel in third. Although it is too early to declare an end to Red Bull hegemony, Mercedes looks quick and capable of taking the fight to Vettel this weekend.
Mark Webber was fourth fastest and 0.019s off team-mate Vettel before the usual gap to the Ferraris and Lotuses behind. Felipe Massa had the edge over Fernando Alonso but both were roughly a second off Hamilton at the end of the session, while Kimi Raikkonen was 1.207s off the Mercedes and two tenths shy of Lotus team-mate Romain Grosjean.
Sergio Perez showed good pace throughout the session and ended up ninth fastest ahead of Daniel Ricciardo's Toro Rosso in tenth. But the star of the show was the Suzuka track, which proved itself to be as unforgiving as ever. Rookies Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde went off at the second Degner, with Bianchi damaging the front suspension of his Marussia quite badly.
Bianchi lost the rear of his car at the apex and as he tried to correct the slide his arm got stuck against the side of the cockpit, leaving the car in a continuous state of opposite lock. As the tyres gripped up again he still could not move his arm and the steering remained set to the left, dragging the car over the gravel and into the barriers.
"When I had this oversteer moment, my elbow became blocked between the chassis and the seat," he said. "That's why I couldn't turn right again because it was blocked on the left side. My elbow was stuck there so it's not an easy one."
Bianchi was seen nursing his elbow with an ice pack when he returned to the paddock, but he is expected to continue to drive for the rest of the weekend.
There were no such excuses for van der Garde's accident as he had a more typical Degner shunt, running a little wide in Degner 1 as he passed Massa into the corner and then taking too much speed into Degner 2. He was able to slow the car before the barrier, minimising the damage to the Caterham.
The only other major incident of the session came when Pastor Maldonado lost a wheel from his Williams at Spoon corner. He ran wide and into the run off area in what appeared to be a standard mistake, but as he attempted to return to the track the left rear wheel slipped off the hub and sent him into a spin. He stopped the car soon after and took the long walk back to the pits.