Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Suzuka, 2023

Ferrari resurgence continues but Perez must find 16kph to match Verstappen

Formula 1

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Just five days after failing to win a grand prix for the first time in 2023 following a weekend in Singapore where they were far from being the best team, Red Bull arrived in Japan eager to seize back the narrative and remind everyone they are the team to beat every weekend at every circuit.

Last time out, the signs of trouble were there for Red Bull from the start. Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez ended the first day of running outside the top six, around seven tenths of a second off the pace of the Ferraris. It was Red Bull’s worst Friday of the season so far, which, in many ways, speaks to the relentless speed and consistency they have otherwise enjoyed through the year.

But in the space of two hours of running on Friday, Red Bull appear to have snuffed out their rivals’ hopes that Singapore slump would carry over to Suzuka. Verstappen ended the first day in Japan over three tenths of a second faster than Charles Leclerc – Red Bull’s biggest margin over rivals on a Friday since the Miami Grand Prix back in May.

After openly bemoaning his car’s handling after second practice at Singapore, Verstappen was singing a completely different tune in Japan. “It felt really good today,” he declared. “From lap one the car was enjoyable to drive again.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Suzuka, 2023
Ferrari are enjoying an upswing in form
“We’ve had a strong day on the short and long runs. There’s a lot of degradation on this track so it will be quite tough on tyres during the race, but so far, we’ve had a good start to the weekend.”

But despite Verstappen’s margin at the top of the times, it was not all doom and gloom for Red Bull’s rivals. A glimmer of hope could be found in the data from the best push laps of the day, in that Verstappen did not appear to be superior to his closest competition throughout the entire lap.

While Verstappen was significantly quicker through the Esses in the fast, flowing opening sector, his advantage over the likes of Leclerc and Lando Norris behind him remained fairly static over the second half of the lap. Between the exit of the hairpin to the end of the lap, Verstappen’s time gain over Leclerc and Norris actually reduced by around a tenth of a second. Given that the second half of Suzuka consists of three fast corners and a chicane, that does suggest that Ferrari and McLaren’s high speed corner performance remains formidable.

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Ever since McLaren introduced a major upgrade package in Austria three months ago, their rivals have expected them to thrive at Suzuka. The opening sector seems tailor-made for the characteristics of the MCL60, but although Norris was almost three tenths behind than Verstappen exiting the long Dunlop corner at the crest of the hill, the McLaren driver was still comfortably quicker than Leclerc, Carlos Sainz Jnr in the second Ferrari, the two Mercedes or even Perez in the second Red Bull on all their best efforts of the session. But despite the speed of his car, Norris admitted there is work to do with his car’s handling.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Suzuka, 2023
Suzuka suits McLaren’s car
“The balance is a bit all over the place in these very low grip conditions, but I think it’s a problem the whole grid has,” Norris said. “I’m finding small improvements here and there. The speed is relatively good and if we can tidy some things up, I think we can have a good day tomorrow.”

Leclerc’s best effort was an interesting one. At the same point at the end of the first sector, he was over half a second slower than the pace-setting Red Bull. But over the rest of his lap, Leclerc recovered time on both Verstappen and Norris, before beating the McLaren to second by virtue of a better exit out of the final chicane on the run to the line. Despite being separated from his team mate by Norris, Sainz seemed happy with the performance of the Ferrari and their new floor, which wasn’t fitted to his car until the second session.

“It’s not a big step,” Sainz said. “It’s really just fine-tuning the aerodynamics of our car.

“We dedicated the whole Friday really to try different mechanical settings in the car or try different setups, just experimenting here and there. Hopefully for tomorrow we can put the whole package together and make a step forward.”

The Mercedes drivers had a mixed session. George Russell was fifth fastest while Lewis Hamilton ended Friday all the way down in 14th. While Hamilton admitted he “really struggled” with his car in both sessions, Russell assessed his day as “half reasonable”. After being six tenths from Verstappen but within three tenths of the trio ahead of him, Russell believes it will be tough battle between Red Bull’s rivals in qualifying.

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“There’s a few unknowns at the moment,” Russell said. “I think, at the moment, it’s not going to be a straightforward fight for the top end of Q3.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Suzuka, 2023
Hamilton was well off the pace on Friday
“I think there’s going to be some quicker cars out there. Some guys might take more soft tyres into qualifying than others, so there may be a strategic change between people in qualifying. I’d like to think we’ll be anywhere between P3 and P6.”

But while the signs all point to a very close fight behind Verstappen, whose pace suggests he’s likely to be the easy favourite for pole position once again, Friday was not the strongest day for his team mate. Perez spent both practice sessions mired in the midfield. The almost 1.4-second gulf between him and his team mate in the earlier session was not fully representative due to Perez running an older specification of floor compared to Verstappen to allow Red Bull to run direct comparisons between the two.

But Perez had the benefit of running the updated floor in the second. On their respective fastest laps, Perez lost the vast majority of his over one second of deficit to Verstappen in the opening sector. At the apex of the Esses, Perez was as much as 16kph slower than his team mate, then lost further time up the hill at the Dunlop corner with a brief lift off the throttle.

Perez has only one hour of practice remaining in which to figure out how to carry more speed through the sweepers before he heads into qualifying. Given that he has only secured one front row start over the last 10 grand prix qualifying sessions in a car that is set to clinch the constructors’ championship on Sunday, Perez could do with a strong showing on Saturday – something he’ll need if he is to beat the close competition behind his team mate.

“It was a very interesting Friday,” Perez said of his day’s work. “This morning we went a bit off balance, but we now have a very good understanding of the direction we need to take.

“I look forward to qualifying. I believe we are going to be strong tomorrow and on Sunday.”

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Combined practice times

P.#DriverTeamFP1 timeFP2 timeGapLaps
11Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’31.6471’30.68844
216Charles LeclercFerrari1’32.5741’31.0080.32048
34Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’32.3921’31.1520.46446
455Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’32.2731’31.2370.54946
563George RussellMercedes1’33.3101’31.3280.64046
614Fernando AlonsoAston Martin-Mercedes1’32.6501’31.4920.80445
723Alexander AlbonWilliams-Mercedes1’32.9911’31.5550.86747
881Oscar PiastriMcLaren-Mercedes1’32.7131’31.6620.97448
911Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda RBPT1’33.0431’31.7101.02249
1077Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’33.8601’31.7391.05146
1118Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’33.0401’31.7711.08339
1231Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’33.5161’31.7941.10644
1327Nico HulkenbergHaas-Ferrari1’33.4481’31.7971.10948
1444Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’33.6991’31.8291.14143
1540Liam LawsonAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’33.0051’32.1411.45351
1624Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’34.8311’32.1651.47739
1720Kevin MagnussenHaas-Ferrari1’33.9751’32.1691.48146
1822Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda RBPT1’32.5971’32.1781.49047
1910Pierre GaslyAlpine-Renault1’33.1291’32.1791.49145
202Logan SargeantWilliams-Mercedes1’34.2121’32.3201.63252

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Author information

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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5 comments on “Ferrari resurgence continues but Perez must find 16kph to match Verstappen”

  1. Small wonder that Perez loses out in the s’es.. you need grip and total confidence in yourself and the car to maximize there. And that’s exactly what Perez lacks. He just cannot drive the car the same way Max does… he would be beached if he really tried. Oh and Max kinda fumbled the hairpin. So add another 0,1 or more to his advantage…

  2. A question that I have is:

    Will it favor Ferrari to drop development for this year and finish 3th in 2023? Or Gamble so they can finish second this season?

    Same question for Mercedes.

      1. “Will it favor” … …”Or gamble”

        Response “Certainly”

        You’re a closet politician, aren’t you? :)

    1. Doggy, are there any major regulation changes planned for next year? I didn’t think there was anything major, in which case the 2024 car might well be little more than the 2023 car with a new paint job. If that’s the case, I think it is just a question of juggling budgets. But what if there is a major change in regs, or they want to try a completely new car design? That is the sort of position Mercedes were in last year with their no-sidepod cdead duck of a car, yet they still continued bringing new parts for it. I think for major teams like Merc and Ferrari who everyone expects to be winners, if they obviously threw in the towel at this point it wouldn’t go down well with the sponsors who had high expectations when they signed the cheque and are still hoping to get good exposure out of the season.

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