On a weekend that is all set to be about Red Bull and the crowning of Max Verstappen as world champion, Mercedes laid down a marker by locking out the front row in second practice.
George Russell narrowly edged out Lewis Hamilton for top spot by two tenths as the Silver Arrows navigated the torrential rain to send a reminder to the rest of the grid.
Much was made of Mercedes’ difficulties in Singapore but this was a marked improvement and showed they could yet be a player this weekend should the wet weather be here to stay.
Russell and Lewis Hamilton played it safe as water pooled into a near-river on track during first practice, combining for just 10 completed laps as they ran 18th and 13th respectively.
But switching to full wet tyres for the second round of practice, Mercedes looked much more at home – and they will now target a front-row repeat in qualifying on Saturday when it really counts.
Max Verstappen cut a semi-irritated figure in front of the media on Thursday, targeted by questions about the row over the delayed budget cap announcement from the FIA.
His mood appeared to show little lift after two rounds of qualifying with the championship leader coming in third behind the Mercedes pair.
‘All tyres are s***. No grip,’ Verstappen fumed to his engineer Gianpiero Lambiase.
His Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez endured similar frustrations in coming fourth.
Second qualifying here in Suzuka was slated to be a blind tyre test for next year’s compounds but with the rain failing to let up it was shelved.
Mick Schumacher, who remains at risk of being out of F1 next year, had to skip second practice all together after crashing and destroying his front wing after the first session.
The chequered flag had gone but the young Haas driver remained outy on track for some practice starts, only to lose grip on his return to the pits and cannon into the wall at the exit of Turn 7.
Schumacher groaned on his radio before getting out and walking himself back to the pits and with Haas needing to change his chassis he was not able to play any part in the second practice.
There was to be plenty of near misses for drivers battling the treacherous conditions thereafter, with both Ferrari drivers Carlos Sainz, who finished sixth, and Charles Leclerc, who finished 11th, doing well to avoid heavy collisions with the barriers as they veered off course.
Home favourite Yuki Tsunoda, a man who said he feels no pressure as the sole Japanese driver at this race, skidded his way through the gravel early in the second session before dialling his speed back to finish 14th.
Outgoing Williams driver Nicholas Latifi even managed to get himself lost on a one-way circuit, taking a turn into a slip road before realising his mistake.
Fernando Alonso, who produced a masterclass to go quickest in first practice, failed to rediscover his magic second time around as he guided Alpine to a seventh-quickest finish.