Verstappen Dominates In Japan
The reigning Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen was absolutely peerless throughout the Japanese Grand Prix weekend and today added a further victory to his CV while helping his Red Bull team seal this season’s Constructors’ Championship title.
Max Verstappen today helped Red Bull to claim their sixth Constructors’ title
Red Bull had arrived at Suzuka determined to eradicate the memory of their relatively poor weekend in Singapore and very much return to their more normal front of the grid pace. The Singapore result did mean though that it would no longer be mathematically possible for Verstappen to wrap up this year’s Drivers’ Championship title in Japan, but this may still occur at the following race in Qatar, with five further rounds remaining beyond that if need be. Therefore Suzuka would not be able to add to its tally of crowning F1 champions in 2023 at least. Many of us will recall that emotional day there back in 1996 when Damon Hill clinched his title for Williams, followed by 2000 when Michael Schumacher won his third title there and the first of five consecutive ones for Ferrari. Then of course Verstappen also sealed his second title at the iconic figure-of-eight circuit last year at the end of a very wet day.
2023 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix
1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr30m58.421s
2 Lando Norris (McLaren) +19.387s
3 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +36.494s
4 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +43.998s
5 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +49.376s
6 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +50.221s
7 George Russell (Mercedes) +57.659s
8 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +1m14.725s
9 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +1m19.678s
10 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +1m23.155s
11 Liam Lawson (AlphaTauri) Lapped
12 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) Lapped
13 Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
14 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) Lapped
15 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Lapped
16 Alex Albon (Williams) Retired
17 Logan Sargeant (Williams) Retired
18 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) Retired
19 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) Retired
20 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) Retired
One noticeable absentee in the Suzuka F1 paddock this weekend was Mercedes part owner and team principal Toto Wolff, who opted to return instead to his native Austria for an operation to repair the damaged anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The 51-year-old had suffered the injury several years ago and believed it had caused a cycling accident for him during the sport’s summer break, which had left him nursing a fractured elbow. He was determined to remain in constant contact with his colleagues in Japan.
On the driver front, last Wednesday McLaren announced a two-year contract extension to the end of 2026 for the highly promising 22-year-old Australian driver Oscar Piastri, who is currently in his rookie F1 season. His team principal, Zak Brown, was rightly effusive about his speed, attitude, and work ethic. Meanwhile, young British driver Lando Norris, who finished second in Singapore last weekend, is contracted to McLaren until the end of 2025, but speculation about his future, possibly alongside Verstappen at Red Bull, continues. If McLaren’s form continues to rise, though, Norris may have less of an incentive to consider moving elsewhere.
The AlphaTauri sister team to Red Bull will have an as yet to be revealed new name for next season, but of greater significance is its driver selection for 2024, which was announced yesterday. It has been facing a three-into-two-won’t-go situation as it is currently utilising the services of Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda and New Zealand’s Liam Lawson, the latter having been very impressive whilst deputising for the injured Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian is still suffering from a fractured metacarpal bone in his left hand and it’s now clear that his recovery may take a little longer than originally expected. His hopes of returning at the next round in Qatar have diminished and simulator work will help to confirm when he is sufficiently recovered to cope with the physical demands of driving a Formula 1 car. This means that Lawson, who has caught the attention of many key figures in the F1 paddock, will continue to deputise for Ricciardo in the interim. However, it is not all good news for the likeable Kiwi as Ricciardo and Tsunoda are to remain as AlphaTauri’s race drivers next year, with Lawson reverting to his former role as a reserve driver for the team and Red Bull. His time will surely come though.
Lando Norris was thrilled to again finish second for McLaren
In other news, after the FIA governing body had invited applications for an eleventh team to join the current 20 car Formula 1 grid four submissions were received and analysed. Although the FIA has not commented officially on these bids, it is understood that three have already been rejected, with only the American Andretti Global one still under consideration.
Meanwhile, back at Suzuka all the teams’ strategists were well aware that the last five Japanese Grands Prix had featured three safety car interventions plus a trio of virtual ones and of course last year there was a red flag weather related race stoppage which lasted over two hours. Another factor to also be considered was that tyre degradation has always tended to be high at Suzuka, with two stops during the Grand Prix far more likely than one.
Friday’s opening free practice session began at 11.30am local time (3.30 in the morning back in the UK) and Verstappen confirmed Red Bull’s return to form by topping the timesheets, a significant 0.626s faster than Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz who was the best of the rest. This dispelled the suggestions by some that Red Bull’s sudden lack of frontrunning pace in Singapore had been the result of a technical reminder to all teams about floor regulations, although the Milton Keynes based team adamantly refuted such allegations. Verstappen reinforced his early supremacy later on Friday when he again went fastest, with the other Ferrari driven by Charles Leclerc now second quickest ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and Sainz. Mercedes had mixed fortunes as George Russell was fifth, whilst Sir Lewis Hamilton was only 14th. The session ended two minutes early after Pierre Gasly had crashed his Alpine at the Degner Two corner, the challenging site of many previous driver indiscretions in the past.
It was Verstappen who again led the way in yesterday’s final practice period ahead of the McLarens of Norris and Piastri and come the conclusion of the qualifying hour the Dutch reigning champion was on top again, beating Piastri to pole position by over half a second and putting in two of the best qualifying laps in Formula 1 history. Piastri was delighted though to have claimed his first front row starting position for a Grand Prix, just ahead of his team-mate Norris and Leclerc. As has become the norm, Verstappen had outpaced his team-mate Sergio Pérez throughout the three practice sessions and also in qualifying where the Mexican was over three quarters of a second slower.
Third placed Oscar Piastri completed a strong showing by McLaren
Suzuka was as always a sight to behold throughout the weekend, with the Japanese fans showing their passion for the sport and its drivers and often in very creative and eye-catching ways. The excitement continued to grow today under clear blue skies as the 2pm local time start of the formation lap neared and when today’s race got underway it was Verstappen who led the sprint into the opening righthander for the first time, with Norris quickly getting the better of Piastri. To their rear there was contact though and the safety car was soon called into action to enable debris to be cleared from the circuit at Turn 1. Pérez had to pit for a new front wing and switched at the same time from medium to hard specification tyres, rejoining down in 18th position and picking up a five-second penalty for the incorrect manner in which he did so.
Racing resumed at the start of lap five and, whilst Verstappen continued to lead from Norris and Piastri, Pérez’s day went from bad to worse as he earned himself a further five-second penalty after clumsily barging into Kevin Magnussen’s Haas at the Hairpin, leaving him needing another new front wing. Following a short virtual safety car period Red Bull subsequently instructed Pérez to pit and retire the car, which he duly did. However, after consultation with Race Control the team later sent him back on track briefly to then be able to serve his second penalty and avoid the risk of it potentially becoming a grid penalty at the next race.
It soon became clear that a two-stop strategy would be the preferred option for virtually all the drivers and after a flurry of initial pitstops for the frontrunners a second period of intense pitlane activity followed. One key exception was Russell, who suggested to his Mercedes team that a one-stopper might work, but unfortunately for the young racer from King’s Lynn it didn’t and, as the Grand Prix headed towards its conclusion, he gradually dropped down the order from third position to seventh at the chequered flag.
Fernando Alonso used an eye-catching new helmet design for Suzuka
Verstappen’s victory was never in doubt and he also claimed the extra point for the fastest lap of the race, prompting wild celebrations in the team’s pit garages despite Pérez’s troubled day. With the Constructors’ title in the bag, the Drivers’ one is now their target. Before today’s Grand Prix had even begun McLaren knew that their fight would not be with Verstappen for the win, but for the remaining podium positions and Norris and Piastri duly obliged, with Hamilton ending up fifth, sandwiched by the Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz.
So, the Formula 1 teams will now return to their respective European HQs before heading to Qatar for the next race weekend on this year’s Formula 1 calendar, with another Sprint event also being held there on the day before the Grand Prix.
2023 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship
1 Max Verstappen 400
2 Sergio Pérez 223
3 Lewis Hamilton 190
2023 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship
1 Red Bull 623
2 Mercedes 305
3 Ferrari 285