Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Singapore, 2023

Red Bull coronation at Honda’s home track? Seven Japanese GP talking points

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For the best part of a year it seemed like no one could beat Red Bull. Then in Singapore last weekend not one, not two, but three of their rival teams beat them home.

Nonetheless, so great is the advantage Red Bull have built themselves by winning every other grand prix this year that they arrive at Suzuka, home circuit of their power unit designer Honda, poised to clinch the constructors’ championship with half-a-dozen rounds remaining.

As Ferrari tasted victory for the first time in 2023, and Red Bull’s pace mysteriously vanished around Marina Bay, the reigning world champions will be eager to return to their winning ways around one of Formula 1’s most beloved venues.

Here are the talking points for the Japanese Grand Prix.

Red Bull’s revenge?

For the first time in over 300 days, Red Bull competed in a grand prix that they did not win last weekend. Rather than suffering an unexpected double breakdown or having both cars caught up in an accident with their rivals or even each other, Red Bull’s record winning run came to an end simply because they lacked the pace of their rivals.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner insisted that the cause of their troubles was a simple case of failing to find the right setup to get the best out of their RB19 on the Singapore streets. “I think that we just haven’t optimised the car in the right window to extract the most out of it,” he told media including RaceFans after the race.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Suzuka, 2022
Expect Red Bull to fly at Suzuka – like last year
Max Verstappen previously admitted that street circuits are not the best hunting ground for the RB19. The team’s performance at Baku, where Ferrari claimed pole for the sprint race and grand prix, gave some justification for that claim.

Now at Suzuka, a permanent circuit, Horner is hopeful that they will not suffer the same difficulties they did in Singapore. “It’s a completely different layout, completely different type of circuit, so hopefully we can be competitive,” said Horner.

Red Bull have an opportunity to strike back in the most emphatic manner possible by clinching their sixth constructors’ championship title – and second in a row. Only a major upset keep Mercedes and Ferrari from remaining in contention by Sunday evening: A win for either Verstappen or team mate Sergio Perez would put Red Bull out of reach.

McLaren eying fourth place

Aside from Red Bull, Aston Martin were the stand-out performers in the early stages of the 2023 season. Fernando Alonso secured six podium appearances over the opening eight rounds and the team held second in the constructors’ standings until the Spanish Grand Prix in early June.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Singapore, 2023
McLaren are slashing Aston Martin’s points margin
Aston Martin’s performance has gradually declined relative to their rivals since, with Alonso taking only one other podium in Zandvoort and the team dropping to fourth in the standings behind Ferrari. Last weekend, they endured their first point-less weekend of 2023 and dropped out of title contention.

In the meanwhile, McLaren’s form has followed the complete opposite trend to Aston Martin. Since introducing a major upgrades package at the Austrian Grand Prix they have have collected 122 points – almost double that of Aston Martin over the same stretch of races. McLaren remain 78 points behind them in the championship, meaning they need to out-score Aston Martin by an average of just over 11 points per weekend over the final seven rounds to snatch fourth place by the end of the season.

McLaren will be feeling confident this weekend. After a new aerodynamics upgrade at Singapore helped Lando Norris to second place in the race, McLaren now head to a relatively high-speed, flowing circuit in the form of Suzuka. After their best performance of the season came at Silverstone, a track with far more in common with Suzuka than Singapore, McLaren will be eager to do serious damage to Aston Martin’s lead over them this weekend.

The performance of Oscar Piastri will be a significant factor in their championship hopes, as the rookie has another unfamiliar circuit to tackle, though this weekend he will have the benefit of McLaren’s latest upgrade too.

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AlphaTauri under the microscope

AlphaTauri may be a Red Bull-owned team based in Italy, but they will be in the spotlight more than most teams in Japan this weekend as a result of their two drivers.

Liam Lawson, AlphaTauri, Singapore, 2023
Lawson is making a case for a full-time F1 drive
As the only Japanese driver in the field, Yuki Tsunoda arrives for his second home grand prix with many rumours swirling over his future. While it is largely expected the 23-year-old will be handed a fourth season with the team for 2024 and that an announcement could come this weekend, Tsunoda heads to Suzuka sorely lacking in momentum. He did not start the Italian Grand Prix due to a car failure on the formation lap, while he was bullied out of the race at Singapore as a result of contact with Perez on the first lap.

As Tsunoda has been frustrated, his team mate, Daniel Ricciardo, continues to sit on the sidelines with an injured hand. Liam Lawson is expected to deputise once again.

Fresh from scoring his first F1 points by finishing ninth in Singapore, Lawson’s confidence will be boosted if he remains in the cockpit for Suzuka as he knows the circuit from racing there in Japan’s Super Formula series earlier this year. Next month he is due to head back to the track to compete in the series’ final two rounds, where he will attempt to clinch the title as a rookie.

With Lawson earning all the plaudits, Tsunoda will be more eager than ever to put in a strong performance at his home grand prix – especially after the team’s upgrades delivered them points last weekend. If he does, Tsunoda will make a case to show why he, and not Red Bull’s Formula 2 title contender Ayumu Iwasa, is the more promising Japanese prospect for AlphaTauri to go forward with.

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Traffic trouble

Two races ago at Monza, race director Neils Wittich opted to extend the usual maximum lap time for in-laps in qualifying, and applying it to all laps drivers completed in the session, in a bid to prevent cars from bunching up on the approach to the final corner and creating a dangerous hazard for those completing flat-out laps.

Race start, Suzuka, 2022
Suzuka’s last sector poses a traffic hazard
The move appeared to be successful with no notable incidents of drivers being blocked or having to avoid slow cars. But despite it having the desired effect at Monza, Wittich chose not to repeat the practice in Singapore. Whether as a direct result or not, there were alarming scenes on Saturday at the end of Q1 as Logan Sargeant exited the penultimate corner to find a gaggle of cars almost stopped before the pit entry waiting to begin the final flying laps. While there were no collisions, championship leader Verstappen was investigated by the stewards for potentially impeding the Williams, but was ultimately cleared after he was deemed to have acted responsibly given the mass of cars around him.

Traffic in qualifying is a consistent issue across all circuits but could be especially concerning this weekend at Suzuka. Not only is Suzuka a slightly narrower circuit than other permanent circuits on the calendar, the final chicane at the end of the lap is preceded by 130R, one of the fastest corners on the calendar. With drivers exiting that corner at over 300kph, the short straight leading to the chicane is no place for any cars to be sat waiting to start their laps.

Last year, Verstappen and Norris – two drivers who are likely to be in contention for pole this weekend – were involved in an incident at this exact section of the track in qualifying, when Norris was forced to take avoiding action to miss colliding with the Red Bull driver, who received a reprimand from the stewards. To avoid similar scenes this weekend, the FIA may consider it best to repeat the approach they took for Monza.

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Last late-season Japanese GP

Race start, Suzuka, 2022
New race date could bring different conditions next year
This year’s Japanese GP is set to be the last that takes place in the latter part of the grand prix schedule, a position it has occupied since Suzuka joined the calendar in 1987. The race has an April date on the 2024 F1 calendar, becoming the fourth round of the championship following the Australian Grand Prix and before F1 returns to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix.

Unusually, this will therefore be the first of two Japanese Grands Prix within eight months. Such is the popularity of the race among spectators it is doubtful that will affect crowd sizes, but what it might mean for weather conditions at a round which has often been disrupted by heavy rain, including last year, remains to be seen.

Prototype Pirellis

Japanese involvement in motorsport, and even F1, goes beyond drivers, constructors and power units, but also in the realm of tyres too. The FIA are currently deciding whether to continue with Pirelli as F1’s sole tyre supplier for 2025 and beyond, or to go with Japanese tyre manufacturer Bridgestone – who Pirelli took over from in 2011 – as they have tendered to become the nominated supplier.

While Bridgestone’s returning would be disruptive to F1 in more ways than one, Pirelli are preparing for next season by allowing teams to run a prototype tyre compound at Suzuka. Unlike last year, when certain practice sessions were extended by half an hour and all teams were permitted to only run experimental compounds, Pirelli’s chief F1 engineer Simone Berra says they are taking a different approach for this season.

“It was decided not to do the in-competition test,” Berra explained to media including RaceFans in Singapore. “We will provide to the teams two extra prototypes to be used during FP1 and FP2 like we did in Barcelona to test a new C2 compound.

“The idea was to have a C2 that is like a space between C1 and C3. At the moment the C2 is really close to the C1. And there is a big delta with the C3 – more than one second – so it will be a little bit softer. This is because we continue with the tyre blankets for next year, so this was our back-up plan.”

Will they go all the way?

The Japanese Grand Prix has not reached its 53-lap distance in the last five years. After Lewis Hamilton took victory in 2018, Valtteri Bottas did the same for Mercedes the following year.

Start, Suzuka, 2018
The Japanese Grand Prix last went the distance five years ago
However, the 2019 race results were taken from the end of lap 52 after drivers received the chequered flag signal one lap too early, leading to a peculiar situation where a last-lap crash for Perez was negated, allowing him to keep his four points in eighth place.

The Covid-19 pandemic meant F1 did not race in Japan again until last year. However, heavy rain led to the race being red flagged after just two laps and an extensive delay followed. When the race eventually resumed only 28 laps were run before the three-hour hard time limit on the race expired, causing the race to end long before full distance.

If Sunday’s race goes its full scheduled distance, it will only be the first time it has done so since 2018 – before eight of the 20 current drivers had made their grand prix debuts.

If the race is cut short again a reduced points allocation may be awarded – this famously failed to happen at last year’s race due to an error in the drafting of F1’s new rules, creating confusion over Verstappen’s drivers’ championship triumph.

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Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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12 comments on “Red Bull coronation at Honda’s home track? Seven Japanese GP talking points”

  1. With 353 points available over seven rounds and a 308 points advantage over Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship, Red Bull needs to outscore them by at least one point and lose no more than 23 points from Ferrari in order to clinch the title in Japan.

  2. “Only a major upset keep Mercedes and Ferrari from remaining in contention by Sunday evening: A win for either Verstappen or team mate Sergio Perez would put Red Bull out of reach.”

    Not really correct – Red Bull is 308 points ahead and need to be 309 points ahead after Japan to be WCC as in the last 6 races there are still 309 points available (44 * 6 + 15 * 3).

    So to get the WCC in Japan they need to outscore Mercedes by 1 point and not have Ferrari outscore them by 24 points.
    If Red Bull wins and gets FLAP in Japan but the other car doesn’t score they only score 26 points while a Mercedes 2nd/6th place is also 26 points leaving Red Bull 1 point short.

    1. @WillWood used the word ‘and’ (Mercedes and Ferrari), and thus he is right claiming that a win will put Red Bull out of reach for the group of two teams.

      Another case of ‘any is not all’ in the form of ‘and is not or’ :p

  3. Red Bull’s revenge? – I’m sure they’ll be back in form.

    McLaren eying fourth place – Not impossible, but I doubt they’re going to catch AM in points anymore despite effectively having two drivers versus one advantage.

    AlphaTauri under the microscope – Yes & Tsunoda will presumably indeed get another season, with a formal announcement being only a matter of days.

    Traffic trouble – Hopefully, nothing dramatic will happen, especially towards the last corner combination.

    Last late-season Japanese GP – Having the Japanese GP in the early-season flyaway phase will probably feel weird at first before getting used to it, but I’ll nevertheless miss having this event at this phase within September’s last & October’s first quarter. At least April is also mostly warm despite being a bit cooler on average.

    Prototype Pirellis – I don’t care an awful lot.

    Will they go all the way? – Yes, as weather should be dry throughout, so other factors causing lap losses would have to happen, although a forced extra formation lap for a car failure on the original formation lap or grid before originally scheduled start would merely guarantee this.

    1. Regarding McLaren eyeing fourth place: yeah, a 78-point deficit with 7 rounds remaining means they’d have to outscore Aston Martin by an average of 11 points for each round. That’d require Norris and Piastri to consistently finish in the points with at least one of them in front of Alonso (let’s just ignore Stroll…)

      1. Indeed, so easier said than done.

      2. If we look at the last 7 rounds for McLaren and Aston it looks like this; (if I’ve done my maths right)
        Alonso 53, Stroll 10 = 63
        Norris 85, Piastri 37 = 122
        a 59 point gain to McLaren
        If we consider Piastri will have the upgrade and Aston hasn’t slated any major updates to their package, plus add in a resurgent Ferrari and Mercedes, points might be a bit harder to come by for Aston and McLaren in the final 7 races.
        Regardless it does add some spice to the final races.

        1. With this trend McLaren would at the very least still be in contention for 4th place by the season finale.

        2. If we look at the last 7 rounds for McLaren and Aston it looks like this; (if I’ve done my maths right)
          Alonso 53, Stroll 10 = 63
          Norris 85, Piastri 37 = 122
          a 59 point gain to McLaren

          You’ve done your math right, but didn’t correct for the three sprint races we will still have.
          If we triple the points achieved at the last sprint race then the points will be:
          Alonso 53, Stroll 10 = 63
          Norris 91, Piastri 51 = 142
          a 79 point gain to McLaren
          That’s 1 point more than they need to beat Aston Martin!

  4. Looking forward to seeing more about Bridgestone’s proposals and views on F1 tyres. After more than a decade, it’s pretty clear what Pirelli can and cannot do. Given that, a change would be very welcome.

    While racing will always feature some form of tyre management, Pirelli has forced F1 to take it to an extreme due to their constant inability to widen the operating window of their compounds. And this despite repeated claims that their new compounds would do just that.

  5. Run the new tyres in Q1, and maybe Q2. Same ones for everybody, like ATA. Maybe they’ll warm up better and help avoid the trundling and stacking – which sounds particularly dicey here with drivers arriving round 130R. F1 just seems to be waiting for The Big One before something is changed with the tyres or qualifying format.

  6. It’s generally expected -and so do I by the way- Red Bull will perform well again, but they did get a hit on the head so to speak, and there’s no way to predict what a bit of confidence lost might mean to them. They do have to pick up the pieces again, so to speak. (Ah, by the way: Great song, ‘Pick up the pieces’, especially on the Burning for Buddy album).

    Ofcourse McLaren are eying fourth. They wouldn’t be a racing team if they weren’t.

    If Lawson manages to do another great job here, it would be hard to overlook the guy. That may prove difficult though, as his confidence may have had a boost from previous races, but therein also lies the danger of getting too confident. Small mistakes are easily made and may have big (time and/or other) consequences, especially on a high speed track.
    Tsunoda has to get his mojo back, if he’s even ever had it in the first place. That’s what this whole exercise with changing teammates for him is all about, and he’s not handled it all too convincing so far. I feel his performance here may greatly influence Red Bull’s decision making, and the final verdict could also still come later -and would be wise for Red Bull- than the press predicts currently.

    The traffic issue can also be handled by having cars bundle up on the straight towards 130R, instead of at the chicane after it. I expect the FiA to go back to the maximum time rule though. Anyway, doing nothing spells trouble and would be downright amateuristic. Not that the FiA is unfamiliar with that, with the rules issue in the article just being jet another bit of proof for that.

    Mixed feelings about the season change for the Japan GP. I’d like them to get a better chance of racing the full distance, which a dryer season likely will provide, but on the other hand rain always used to create spectacular races, until Pirelli and rules changes killed that. Also, I wouldn’t want the second half of the season to merely consist of dull, characterless desert and solely 90 degree corner city circuits. I’m not happy with the intended increase in street circuits to start with, but I hope they will at least still be mixed in evenly among the regular circuits during the season.
    Ah, prototype Pirellis. Aren’t they all prototypes anyway, somehow? It’s not like they’ve come up with a consistent tyre that’s not required change in the first place, over the years. Also, I fail to see what the ‘blankets staying after all’ situation has to do with now having to spread compounds out more evenly over the range. Effectively, there’s now shouldn’t be a real reason for change. It’s something that should have been the case right from the start already. Usual Pirelli blah, I’m afraid.

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