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Practice 1: Kovy pips Nakajima in rain

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Suzuka novice Heikki Kovalainen headed the field in a wet first practice session for the Japanese Grand Prix, denying crowd favourite Kazuki Nakajima the bragging rights by 0.3s with his final lap.

Conditions steadily improved through the 90 minutes, scrambling the timing charts in the closing stages as drivers on fresh intermediate rubber moved to the fore. Nakajima held the fastest time on two separate occasions before Kovalainen demoted him at the flagfall with a 1m40.356s lap – about 10s off a quick dry time.

Wet-weather specialist Adrian Sutil was third fastest for Force India ahead of his former team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, who enjoyed his best session since joining Ferrari at Monza.

Kovalainen and McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton, also a Suzuka neophyte, went out early to get a feel for the demanding 3.6-mile circuit and posted the first timed laps. It was the world champion who found the groove more quickly and laid down an early benchmark of 1m46.974s before returning to the garage to study print-outs of his laps and seek advice from McLaren test driver (and Suzuka veteran) Pedro de la Rosa.

With some initial drizzle having abated and the grippy surface drying all the time, it soon became clear that intermediate tyres were called for. Fernando Alonso used a set of inters to go quickest in his Renault on a 1m46.152s, one lap after surviving a close call with the tyre barrier at the hairpin.

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel moved the target to 1m43.218s, before Hamilton reclaimed the top spot at the session’s halfway point.

Nakajima, revelling in his home circuit and fan support, then enjoyed an 18-minute spell at the head of the order until Sutil became the first man to crack the 1m41s. The fastest time changed hands between Kovalainen, an impressive Sebastien Buemi and Nakajima over the final minutes before the Finnish McLaren driver prevailed.

Buemi wound up fifth fastest ahead of Hamilton and Alonso, with Kimi Raikkonen, Rubens Barrichello and Nico Rosberg rounding out the top 10. Vettel spent the second half of the session in the garage and was shuffled all the way back to 17th place, one spot ahead of championship leader Jenson Button, whose weekend got off to a low-key start.

Toyota’s test driver Kamui Kobayashi did a solid job standing in for the unwell Timo Glock, finishing 19th but outpacing the team's regular driver Jarno Trulli until the closing stages.

1 KOVALAINEN McLaren  1m40.356s
2 NAKAJIMA Williams  1m40.648s
3 SUTIL Force India 1m40.806s
4 FISICHELLA  Ferrari  1m40.985s
5 BUEMI Toro Rosso  1m41.421s
6 HAMILTON  McLaren  1m41.443s
7 ALONSO  Renault  1m41.532s
8 RAIKKONEN  Ferrari  1m41.577s
9 BARRICHELLO  Brawn  1m41.821s
10 ROSBERG  Williams  1m42.188s
11 WEBBER  Red Bull  1m42.332s
12 LIUZZI  Force India  1m42.475s
13 TRULLI  Toyota  1m42.657s
14 ALGUERSUARI  Toro Rosso  1m42.667s
15 KUBICA  BMW  1m42.833s
16 HEIDFELD  BMW  1m42.977s
17 VETTEL  Red Bull  1m43.218s
18 BUTTON  Brawn 1m43.318s
19 KOBAYASHI  Toyota  1m43.407s
20 GROSJEAN  Renault  1m43.572s

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