Quick learner Hamilton fastest at Fuji

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FUJI, Japan, Sep 28 (Reuters) McLaren's championship leader Lewis Hamilton showed he learns as fast as he drives today with the quickest time in Japanese Grand Prix free practice at Fuji.

The 22-year-old British rookie, who had never seen the newest circuit on the calendar before he walked around it for the first time yesterday, lapped in one minute, 18.734 seconds.

Double world champion team mate and title rival Fernando Alonso was second on the timesheets, 0.214 seconds slower, with Ferrari's Felipe Massa third.

Toyota-owned Fuji, which last hosted a Formula One grand prix in 1977 when McLaren's James Hunt won a crash-scarred race that killed two fans, replaces Honda's Suzuka circuit after an extensive revamp.

Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, the third man in a title battle led by Hamilton and Alonso, had been quickest in a bright morning session with a time of 1:19.333.

Massa, whose slender title hopes could finally fade away this weekend, was second fastest in that opening hour and a half long stint.

Hamilton leads Spaniard Alonso by two points with three races remaining while Raikkonen, who led Massa in a Ferrari one-two at the previous Belgian Grand Prix, is 13 points adrift of the Briton.

Massa is a further seven behind his team mate.

Italian Jarno Trulli gave big-spending Toyota, coming to the end of their sixth season in Formula One without a win, something to smile about with the fourth best time in the afternoon. Raikkonen was fifth.

Germany's Nico Rosberg, who had been fifth fastest for Toyota-powered Williams in the morning, suffered a setback when his team confirmed he would take a 10-place penalty on Sunday's starting grid due to an engine change.

Although drivers do not use their race engines in practice today, a day that is exempt from the rule forcing drivers to use their engines for two races in a row, the one used by Rosberg in Belgium was found to be damaged.

Williams are chasing Renault for third place in the constructors' championship, with the outgoing champions 11 points ahead.

Ferrari have already won the title after McLaren were stripped of their 2007 constructors' points and fined a record 100 million dollar for having Ferrari technical information in their possession.

REUTERS BJR SSC1343

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