With a possible Formula One title on the line, Michael Schumacher took an early edge over reigning world champion Fernando Alonso by posting the faster time in Friday's practice for the Japanese Grand Prix.
Both came out late in the second session after the sun emerged in the afternoon, allowing both drivers to use dry-weather tires on the 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) Suzuka circuit . The pair sat out the morning practice, deciding not to take any risks venturing out on the track left wet by morning showers.
The drying conditions were almost identical to last Sunday's Chinese GP, where Schumacher won and Alonso had trouble with his tires.
Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One champion, came third in practice at 1 minute, 34.565 seconds just ahead of defending champion Alonso's 1:34.863.
Ironically both of their teammates were faster. Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella led with 1:34.337 with Ferrari's Felipe Massa second at 1:34.408.
Schumacher, who will retire after the season, could wrap up his eighth world title if he wins Sunday and Alonso drops out or finishes scoreless.
Schumacher's victory in Shanghai last weekend tied him with Alonso atop the driver's standings on 116 points, after trailing 25 points adrift with seven races to go in the season.
The German's latest victory marked the 91st of his storied career and his fifth in the last seven races. Alonso started the season by winning six of the first nine races, the last coming in June at the Canadian GP.
Schumacher has clinched the F1 title twice in Japan (2000, 2003), beating McLaren's Mika Hakkinen each time. Overall, Schumacher has won at Suzuka event six times.
Alonso finished third here last year and Schumacher was fifth.
Alonso's Renault team is a point ahead of Schumacher's Ferrari outfit in the constructors' championship at 179-178. The season ends on Oct. 22 in Brazil.
If Alonso drops out or is scoreless and Schumacher wins Sunday, Schumacher will take an unassailable 10-point lead into the final race. The best Alonso could achieve would be a tie on points if he won in Brazil and Schumacher went scoreless.
If the final standings are tied, the winner is the driver with the most victories _ and Schumacher leads by seven to Alonso's six for now. If they were tied on wins, it would go to whoever has the most second-place finishes, which Alonso leads six to four.
Sunday will mark the last F1 race at Suzuka for a while, with the Japanese GP shifting to the Fuji circuit about 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Tokyo from next year.