Verstappen sitting pretty but unexpectedly hot track could cook up drama

Formula 1

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Reports of Red Bull’s reign of dominance over the 2023 season coming to an end have been greatly exaggerated.

In a year when competition between their rivals behind has been as unpredictable as it has been gripping, Red Bull have routinely rocked up to paddocks across the globe only to crush all opposition with near-militaristic execution. Then, in Singapore, a rare stumble from the world champions offered hope that the Red Bull giant could indeed be toppled.

Yet six days later, Red Bull and Max Verstappen reminded everyone just how powerful a combination they are when they stormed to pole position in Suzuka by one of the biggest margins of the season – and the largest for nearly 20 years at the famous Japanese circuit. Not that it was of any surprise to their opposition.

“Our internal messaging was ‘expect them to be back out front when we get back to Suzuka’,” admitted Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin. “So that’s certainly not come as any surprise. Apart from Singapore, they’ve got a car that works everywhere.”

The 29th official pole position of his grand prix career and his ninth of 2023, Verstappen was virtually assured the top spot on the grid from the moment he completed the opening sector of his final flying lap over two tenths quicker than anyone else. By the time he reached the finish line, that advantage had more than doubled to over half a second as his 1’28.877 smashed through a mark that none of his rivals were within the same post code of.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Suzuka, 2023
Piastri has a chance to pounce on Verstappen at the start
“There you go,” Verstappen told race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase over team radio after completing his lap. “A ’28.”

Such was Verstappen’s superiority over the weekend, he even had time to make bets with Lambiase over what his pole time would be.

“He told me a ’28 would be nice,” Verstappen explained after the session. “I said, ‘don’t worry, I’m going to send it,’ and then he was like, ‘yeah, but don’t shunt the car, right?’.”

With Verstappen out of reach ahead, McLaren converted their practice pace into second and third behind the leading Red Bull, just as they had at Silverstone. Although this time, Oscar Piastri was the one alongside Verstappen, becoming the ninth driver to start on the front row in 2023. Not a bad effort for the rookie’s first visit to this ultimate notorious driver’s circuit.

“Some people don’t get this opportunity in their whole career,” Piastri observed. “So for me to have it in my first six or seven months is a privilege.”

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Norris had been ahead of his team mate through the majority of their fastest laps of Q3, only losing out to his team mate in the final chicane to end up third on the grid. But even on a circuit where McLaren were long tipped to be strong , Norris felt there was little more his team could have done.

“I think we would have loved to have been a bit closer to Max, but it proved not to be the case,” Norris admitted. “I think there were some very good laps but just a couple of things may be holding us back a little bit. But otherwise, we’re happy.”

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Suzuka, 2023
Leclerc seems more comfortable in his Ferrari this weekend
Charles Leclerc secured fourth place on the grid having beaten Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull. Leclerc had secured higher grid positions with worse laps than the one he felt he had put in in Suzuka.

“I think it was a really good lap and I don’t think there was much left in that lap,” he said. “So that was great, but it’s only P4 so that’s a bit of a shame.”

Watching his team mate break into the 1’28s while he could not even beat the McLarens or Leclerc was a sobering moment for Perez who has still only lined up alongside Verstappen on the front row once all season. He was left in awe of his team mate’s performance.

“When we see that the difference that he’s making he’s definitely had a tremendous lap,” Perez admitted. “Well done to him.”

After a stunning Saturday, Verstappen can now secure the constructors’ crown for his team for a second successive season on Sunday. Naturally, he is feeling confident about his chances.

“The car is quick over one lap, I think also on the long run it’s quick,” he said. “It’s still a decent amount of laps and quite a bit of degradation on the tyres. So just need to look after them during the race. But the car normally should be quick.”

Tyre management has not been as major a factor in deciding what direction races take over recent months, but all signs point to it being a critical factor at Suzuka. Whether it’s due to being the earliest in the year a Japanese Grand Prix has ever been held or just another indicator of an ever-changing climate, temperatures at Suzuka have been as hot as many regulars in the paddock can ever remember. Current forecasts predict that to remain the case for the race, with track temperatures set to be around 40 degrees.

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So much energy in the track has led to a seemingly unexpected consequences for tyres that may have caught teams out over the weekend.

George Russell, Mercedes, Suzuka, 2023
Mercedes stocked up on hard tyres by practising on mediums
“It seems to be a huge amount of tyre degradation,” George Russell explained on Friday. “It’s really weird.

“Suzuka is one of the best tracks in the world to drive, but this year it feels like the Tarmac has really broken up and the cars are sliding on top of the surface. So it’s giving a bit of a strange feeling to all the drivers out there and that’s what’s contributing towards that tyre degradation.”

That high tyre wear means Sunday’s race is almost certain to be one of strategy, where a lot more pit stop activity than recent rounds appears to be on the cards.

“It looks probably closer to a three-stop at the moment than it is a one-stop, to put some perspective on it,” Russell continued. “But I think it will be a two-stop for everybody on Sunday and see what happens.”

Pirelli agree with the Mercedes driver, projecting a two-stop will be near-universal. With the soft tyres degrading particularly rapidly in the heat, McLaren do appear to have one advantage over Red Bull in that both Piastri and Norris both have an extra unused set of hard tyres, as does Russell and his Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton.

That advantage will only come into play if McLaren can keep up with Verstappen in the early phases of the race or even get by the Red Bull at the start. After they managed to do just that with Norris the last time the McLarens both lined up behind him in Silverstone, Piastri is cool on the prospect of emulating that on Sunday.

“We tried our best at Silverstone, so we’ll try and do the same thing,” he said, “but obviously it’s going to be difficult.

“I think it’s going to be a very difficult race tomorrow as well, very different to Silverstone in that regard. It could be a lot more open, I think.”

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Suzuka, 2023
Perez has some catching up to do – again
Even though he got the better of Norris and McLaren last weekend in Singapore, Carlos Sainz Jnr,starting sixth, expects that McLaren might be just out of reach of Ferrari during the race.

“I think McLaren should be a tenth quicker tomorrow also,” Sainz said. “Over 50 laps, that’s quite a lot of race time, even though one tenth sounds like a little. But if we have half a chance with the power of the undercut here with the amount of stops that we need to do, I think anything can happen.”

But while the tyre wear could lead to many changes of position through the course of the race, it’s hard not to foresee one particular driver holding firm ahead of all of them at the front of the field. If he does, he will clinch the title for his team at the home of Honda, the Japanese manufacturers who designed and built the power unit that will soon power him to a third straight drivers’ title.

“That was the aim, especially coming from Singapore,” Verstappen said. “I wanted to have a really strong weekend. And of course, we know that this is the first proper opportunity to win it. So we also want to do that.”

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Qualifying times in full

P.DriverTeamQ1Q2 (v Q1)Q3 (v Q2)
1Max VerstappenRed Bull1’29.8781’29.964 (+0.086s)1’28.877 (-1.087s)
81Oscar PiastriMcLaren1’30.4391’30.122 (-0.317s)1’29.458 (-0.664s)
4Lando NorrisMcLaren1’30.0631’30.296 (+0.233s)1’29.493 (-0.803s)
16Charles LeclercFerrari1’30.3931’29.940 (-0.453s)1’29.542 (-0.398s)
11Sergio PerezRed Bull1’30.6521’29.965 (-0.687s)1’29.650 (-0.315s)
55Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’30.6511’30.067 (-0.584s)1’29.850 (-0.217s)
44Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’30.8111’30.040 (-0.771s)1’29.908 (-0.132s)
63George RussellMercedes1’30.8111’30.268 (-0.543s)1’30.219 (-0.049s)
22Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri1’30.7331’30.204 (-0.529s)1’30.303 (+0.099s)
14Fernando AlonsoAston Martin1’30.9711’30.465 (-0.506s)1’30.560 (+0.095s)
40Liam LawsonAlphaTauri1’30.4251’30.508 (+0.083s)Missed by 0.043s
10Pierre GaslyAlpine1’30.8431’30.509 (-0.334s)Missed by 0.044s
23Alexander AlbonWilliams1’30.9411’30.537 (-0.404s)Missed by 0.072s
31Esteban OconAlpine1’30.9601’30.586 (-0.374s)Missed by 0.121s
20Kevin MagnussenHaas1’30.9761’30.665 (-0.311s)Missed by 0.200s
77Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo1’31.049Missed by 0.073s
18Lance StrollAston Martin1’31.181Missed by 0.205s
27Nico HulkenbergHaas1’31.299Missed by 0.323s
24Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo1’31.398Missed by 0.422s
2Logan SargeantWilliams

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Sector times

P.#DriverS1S2S3Ultimate lap (deficit)
11Max Verstappen30.725 (1)40.311 (1)17.841 (1)1’28.877
281Oscar Piastri30.952 (3)40.356 (2)17.929 (2)1’29.237 (+0.221)
34Lando Norris30.916 (2)40.421 (4)18.047 (9)1’29.384 (+0.109)
416Charles Leclerc31.24 (6)40.363 (3)17.939 (3)1’29.542
511Sergio Perez31.152 (4)40.528 (5)17.954 (4)1’29.634 (+0.016)
655Carlos Sainz Jnr31.278 (8)40.564 (7)17.954 (4)1’29.796 (+0.054)
744Lewis Hamilton31.247 (7)40.616 (8)17.98 (6)1’29.843 (+0.065)
863George Russell31.547 (14)40.552 (6)18.042 (7)1’30.141 (+0.078)
922Yuki Tsunoda31.439 (10)40.706 (9)18.044 (8)1’30.189 (+0.015)
1040Liam Lawson31.481 (11)40.755 (11)18.047 (9)1’30.283 (+0.142)
1114Fernando Alonso31.238 (5)40.984 (14)18.167 (15)1’30.389 (+0.076)
1223Alexander Albon31.648 (16)40.711 (10)18.117 (12)1’30.476 (+0.061)
1310Pierre Gasly31.424 (9)40.99 (15)18.087 (11)1’30.501 (+0.008)
1431Esteban Ocon31.501 (12)40.932 (13)18.153 (14)1’30.586
1520Kevin Magnussen31.626 (15)40.896 (12)18.143 (13)1’30.665
1677Valtteri Bottas31.867 (19)41.001 (16)18.17 (16)1’31.038 (+0.011)
1724Zhou Guanyu31.774 (18)41.073 (17)18.198 (17)1’31.045 (+0.353)
1818Lance Stroll31.521 (13)41.208 (19)18.333 (19)1’31.062 (+0.119)
1927Nico Hulkenberg31.773 (17)41.276 (20)18.228 (18)1’31.277 (+0.022)
202Logan Sargeant32.171 (20)41.129 (18)21.822 (20)1’35.122

Speed trap

P.#DriverCarEngineModelMax kph (mph)
12Logan SargeantWilliamsMercedesFW45308.8 (191.9)
223Alexander AlbonWilliamsMercedesFW45308.6 (191.8)
331Esteban OconAlpineRenaultA523308.3 (191.6)
427Nico HulkenbergHaasFerrariVF-23307.1 (190.8)
511Sergio PerezRed BullHonda RBPTRB19306.9 (190.7)
61Max VerstappenRed BullHonda RBPTRB19306.5 (190.5)
720Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrariVF-23306.2 (190.3)
810Pierre GaslyAlpineRenaultA523306.1 (190.2)
981Oscar PiastriMcLarenMercedesMCL60304.2 (189.0)
1055Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrariSF-23304.0 (188.9)
1116Charles LeclercFerrariFerrariSF-23303.8 (188.8)
1222Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04303.0 (188.3)
1344Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedesW14302.8 (188.2)
1463George RussellMercedesMercedesW14302.7 (188.1)
1514Fernando AlonsoAston MartinMercedesAMR23302.5 (188.0)
164Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedesMCL60301.7 (187.5)
1740Liam LawsonAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04301.6 (187.4)
1818Lance StrollAston MartinMercedesAMR23300.5 (186.7)
1977Valtteri BottasAlfa RomeoFerrariC43300.3 (186.6)
2024Zhou GuanyuAlfa RomeoFerrariC43299.5 (186.1)

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Over to you

Will it be back to business as usual for Verstappen or could the unexpectedly warm conditions trip Red Bull up? Share your views on the Japanese Grand Prix in the comments.

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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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7 comments on “Verstappen sitting pretty but unexpectedly hot track could cook up drama”

  1. Will it be back to business as usual for Verstappen or could the unexpectedly warm conditions trip Red Bull up?
    – Definitely business as usual.

  2. Number 3 – Cup of tea

  3. Verstappen will win by a significant margin and anyone thinking otherwise is deluding themselves.

    I guess there is always the chance of a technical issue, I guess….

  4. Each week, depending on the track and weather conditions, one of the 4 2nd-tier teams has a chance for a podium. This week seems to be McLarens turn. Other weeks it is either Ferrari, Mercedes, or Aston-Martin.

  5. Ok I have a theory developing… it’s still fresh. Max clearly can tame the Red Bull. Sergio can’t. If everyone is developing in Red Bulls direction, are we going to see the same situation in all teams where drivers that can’t handle pointy cars and adapt quickly be very exposed? Are we going to see disparities between many team mates next year be ability based rather than car based? Will ’24 be the year to finally make drivers the deciding factor in how well a car finishes??

    The mixed finishing results lately between teams gives me hope.. no more Noah’s Arc races?

    1. It depends on what each team is doing in terms of setups and team politics. Do they want one ‘fast’ and comfortable driver with the other one struggling, or do they take a more balanced approach to focus on WCC points?
      It’s not always or only about driver talent – it’s very much about team priorities.

      Even the ‘best’ drivers can’t work miracles. They still need their car to do what they want and expect it to do, even if it doesn’t do it perfectly. Naturally, one driver will always be more comfortable in the car than the other, so it’s up to the team to decide what they do with that information.

  6. I prefer the traditional ark for really wet races. But as F1 goes I believe it would normally be the ark of team orders raining down on the Noah idea.
    Nice dream though 🤩

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