He still hasn’t quite mathematically sealed the deal, but Red Bull’s Max Verstappen stands on the verge of a third consecutive world drivers’ championship after a dominant performance in the Japanese Grand Prix.
Bouncing back from Red Bull’s no-show in Singapore a week earlier, a return to form at Suzuka never looked in doubt as the Dutch dynamo was in a class of his own right from the very first practice session.
Despite his team-mate Sergio Perez failing to finish the race, Verstappen’s victory was enough to give Red Bull a sixth Constructors title.
The Dutchman was followed home in the race, at a respectful distance, by the McLaren pair of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, who picked his first career podium.
Verstappen completes dominant weekend
The Singapore slip-up aside, this season has been a one-man show and Japan saw Verstappen at perhaps his most dominant.
The Red Bull ace topped every practice session and claimed pole position by more than half a second. And aside from briefly being challenged by Norris going into the first corner, he never had a moment’s worry in the race, winning by an effortless 20 seconds.
With Perez retiring his Red Bull with collision damage after a number of early-lap skirmishes, Verstappen takes a 177-point lead in the standings to Qatar, where he could potentially wrap up the championship in Saturday’s sprint race.
McLaren’s future looks bright
McLaren made a dramatic leap up the order with the upgrades they introduced in Austria and the Woking team enjoyed their best result of the season with a double podium at Suzuka.
Norris claimed his fourth runner-up trophy in seven races, while Piastri’s third place was arguably even more impressive.
The Australian rookie had never even visited Japan before, never mind driven on the demanding Suzuka layout, yet he was able to match the more experienced Norris all weekend. Indeed, he even pipped the Brit to a front-row starting slot in qualifying.
Piastri inked a two-year extension to his contract earlier in the week and it looks a good deal for both parties.
Best-of-the-rest battle hots up
With Aston Martin having fallen into a hole, their fourth place in the constructors’ championship could well be at risk from the charging McLarens, who are just 49 points behind with plenty left to play for.
However, they aren’t likely to catch the battle for second, which is raging fiercely between Mercedes and Ferrari.
The Scuderia ate into the deficit with a strong performance on home tarmac at Monza, before Carlos Sainz’s brilliant victory in Singapore and they have reduced the gap down to 20 points by edging out the Mercs in their battle at Suzuka.
Mercedes went all-in with a strategic gamble in Singapore to try to win the race, but ended up worse off and they again seemed to make a tactical blunder in Japan.
Lewis Hamilton, carrying slight damage from a first-corner fracas, held up team-mate George Russell early in the race and the younger man opted to try a one-stop strategy.
It became clear as the laps ticked down that that wasn’t going to work, but rather than pit Russell for fresh tyres and a late charge that may well have yielded an extra point for fastest lap, the team left him out and he dropped to seventh.
During that time, though, he hampered Hamilton enough to ruin any chance the seven-time world champion had of chasing down Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari for fourth place.
Verstappen a warm order to follow up in Qatar
The F1 teams have two weeks to regroup before the next round under the floodlights in Qatar.
Like Suzuka, the Lusail circuit is comprised of fast, sweeping corners and Verstappen is unlikely to face much of a challenge.
That is reflected in his odds of 2/9 to win the race. Norris is seen as the closest challenger at 12/1, with Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Perez the same price to bounce back from his Suzuka nightmare.
There was no race in Qatar last year as World Cup preparations dominated the nation, but the 2021 edition saw Hamilton pull back six points in his championship battle with Verstappen by taking a dominant victory.
Fast corners are not Mercedes’ friends this year and their main aim will be to keep tabs on Ferrari.
It is a sprint weekend, so qualifying for the Grand Prix will take place on Friday, with the Shootout and Sprint race on Saturday and the main event on Sunday.
Japanese Grand Prix Race Preview: Verstappen set for dominant victory
Red Bull’s poor performance in Singapore last time out is all but certain to prove a temporary blip after Max Verstappen blew away his rivals to take pole for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.
The world champion missed out on the podium completely at the Marina Bay Circuit a week ago as his 10-race winning run came to an end, but is clearly eager to make amends at Suzuka, where he’s been in a class of his own so far.
Having gone fastest in all three practice sessions at the iconic venue, the Dutchman flew round in qualifying, taking pole by a massive 0.581 seconds.
It was the largest qualifying victory margin at Suzuka since Michael Schumacher in 2004 and with four of the last five winners in Japan starting from pole, it will take something special to stop Verstappen claiming his 13th win of the season.
Team prize ready for Red Bull to claim
Verstappen wrapped up his second drivers’ championship with victory in Japan last year and while he’ll have to wait a little longer to complete his hat-trick, Red Bull should have reason to celebrate after Sunday’s race if all goes to plan as they look to wrap up the Constructors’ Championship.
The Milton Keynes-based outfit need to outscore nearest rivals Mercedes to retain F1’s team prize and clinch their sixth Constructors crown overall.
That looks highly likely at a track that suits the RB19, which thrives in high speed corners.
Verstappen is 1/7 for the win and 8/15 to take the chequered flag and set the fastest lap of the race to confirm his superiority over the rest of the field.
His team mate, Sergio Perez, will start from fifth on the grid and having been a massive 0.773secs slower than Verstappen in the final run of qualifying, the best the Mexican can hope for is to repeat his second-place finish here from a year ago.
McLaren lead charge to be best of the rest
That won’t be easy for Perez, though, with McLaren having looked particularly quick this weekend and Oscar Piastri joining Verstappen on the front row of the grid for Sunday’s race.
The Australian’s best qualifying performance of his short F1 career to date was made all the more impressive when factoring in this is his first visit to Suzuka, renowned as one of the most technically challenging circuits on the calendar.
A first-ever podium finish will be the next goal for Piastri and he’s 5/4 to achieve that ambition, while his team mate Lando Norris is 1/2 to come home in the top three after qualifying in third.
McLaren have a strong track record at Suzuka, recording a joint-best seven wins, and are well placed to take advantage of any mishaps that may befall Verstappen.
Podium push needed from Ferrari and Mercedes
Ferrari are the only other team to win a race in a season dominated by Red Bull but will find it tough to back up their success in Singapore.
Singapore winner Carlos Sainz will start from sixth, two places behind Chares Leclerc, and the Scuderia should be in the mix for the podium based on Friday’s race simulation runs in practice.
Leclerc went quickest in those runs on the medium tyre and is 3/1 to achieve his fourth podium finish of the year.
However, Leclerc, who has a new floor on his car this weekend, could face a possible punishment from the stewards after exceeding the minimum out-lap time in qualifying.
Mercedes pair Lewis Hamilton and George Russell will start from seventh and eighth. The Silver Arrows have tended to save their best performances for race day but the Brit pair will have to work hard to get close to the top three.
Hamilton has an excellent record at Suzuka, finishing outside the podium places only once since 2013 but Mercedes’ weakness through high speed corners leaves them at a significant disadvantage.
Home favourite may send fans home happy
It looks like being a good weekend for the only Japanese driver on the grid, Yuki Tsunoda.
After it was announced Tsunoda and team mate Daniel Ricciardo had penned contract extensions with AlphaTauri for 2024, the Sagamihara-born racer produced an impressive qualifying performance.
Tsunoda once again outperformed expectations by qualifying in ninth, ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso and Liam Lawson, who is currently driving for AlphaTauri as Ricciardo recovers from a hand injury.
The 23-year-old has scored points in three races this season and will hope for a fourth top-10 finish, available at 4/7, in only his second appearance in his home grand prix.
Japanese Grand Prix qualifying preview: Red Bull bounce back but Norris eyes pole challenge
The chasing pack made the most of a rare opportunity to fight for a race win in Singapore , but the early signs are that Max Verstappen and Red Bull are set to resume their dominance at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Verstappen makes an early statement
The warning signs were out early for Verstappen in Singapore, as right from the start of practice his Red Bull simply would not behave the way it was supposed to on the unique street circuit.
The team are usually quick to make the necessary adjustments in time for the important sessions, but that was not the case at Marina Bay, where neither Red Bull reached the top-ten qualifying shootout. That had not happened for five years.
However, with his record ten-race winning streak ended by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, Verstappen gave indication that he is ready to start a new run of success at Suzuka.
The Dutchman comfortably topped the timesheets in both Friday practice sessions at a circuit where Red Bull’s superior aerodynamic package was always likely to prove a huge asset.
Verstappen outpaced Singapore winner Sainz by six-tenths of a second in the first session, and headed Charles Leclerc in the other Ferrari by 0.3 seconds in the latter hour, earning him a 2/7 quote to gain his ninth pole position of the season.
McLaren’s Lando Norris was third in both sessions.
Ferrari looking strong again
Sainz is aiming for his third pole position in a row this weekend and Ferrari will be happy with their Friday pace in Japan.
The car enjoyed the short, sharp corners at Monza and Marina Bay, but was not expected to be as strong around Suzuka’s sweeping curves.
They may yet struggle more on race day, when high tyre degradation is expected in forecast hot conditions, but Saturday could be another strong one for the Scuderia.
Leclerc has long been Ferrari’s golden boy, but Sainz has had an impressively consistent season and delivered a masterful tactical drive to win last weekend.
Charles Leclerc is available at 9/1 with Carlos Sainz having odds of 12/1.
Norris hoping for more McLaren gains
Norris made the most of McLaren’s latest technical upgrade package to pick up his third runners-up position in Singapore, and he will be encouraged by the early signs of how it performs at a very different circuit.
After a poor start to the season, the team began an aggressive development strategy in Austria and have made a dramatic leap up the order as a result.
New parts are rushed from the factory so quickly that they have to be fitted to the cars one at a time. Norris, as the more experienced driver, is the first to be entrusted with the latest bits, with his rookie team-mate Oscar Piastri getting his hands on them a race or two later.
Norris was in the thick of the pole position scrap at Silverstone and Zandvoort, two circuits which place similar demands on the car to Suzuka, and he will have his supporters at 9/1 in the fastest qualifier market.
Hamilton has work to do
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton picked up his 196th career podium finish with a strong charge to finish in third place in Singapore.
A record eighth title was never on the cards this year for the 38-year-old, but it has been a strong season for the Mercedes driver and he and Verstappen are the only two competitors to have finished every race in the top eight.
His Hungarian Grand Prix pole position aside, qualifying has been something of a weakness for Hamilton this season.
He has qualified no higher than fifth at any of the last seven races, and started behind his young team-mate George Russell at the last three events.
Hamilton languished in 16th and 14th in Friday’s two practice sessions, but Russell found some performance in the afternoon to set the fifth fastest time and is 4/6 to qualify ahead of his veteran team-mate.