Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Albert Park, 2024

Red Bull upgrade rumours and tactical slowing: Nine Japanese GP talking points

Formula 1

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Formula 1 will make an earlier than usual visit to Suzuka this weekend for the Japanese Grand Prix.

Red Bull suffered a rare defeat in the last round and will be seeking to reassert themselves. Will they have things all their own way again? Here are the talking points for this weekend’s race.

Red Bull rebound

For the second year in a row, Red Bull will turn up at the home race of their power unit manufacturer having suffered a rare defeat in the previous round (inflicted, again, by Carlos Sainz Jnr and Ferrari).

The dominant champions of the past two seasons will be expected to assert themselves once more, not least because the sinuous Suzuka track should play to the RB20’s many overwhelming strengths. It’s one of the most demanding circuits for tyre degradation, requires a strong handling balance through its many medium-to-high speed corners, and the final sector places an onus on straight-line performance.

Last tear Max Verstappen put his Singapore Grand Prix defeat behind him by blowing the competition away at Suzuka. He claimed pole position by well over half a second and contained the threat from McLaren to control the race. You’d be brave to bet against a repeat this weekend.

On top of that, since testing Red Bull have been rumoured to have earmarked this race for their first major car upgrade. Having made a significant change to the cooling arrangement of their RB20 when it was launch, will we see aerodynamic refinements which allow them to draw further ahead of the competition?

Tsunoda rising, Iwasa arriving

Yuki Tsunoda, RB, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2024
Tsunoda holds the upper hand at RB
The only Japanese driver in the field heads to his home race on a high after scoring RB’s first points in Melbourne. It was a badly-needed boost for Yuki Tsunoda who needs to raise his profile in his fourth season at Red Bull’s second team if he’s to be regarded as a potential replacement for Sergio Perez.

He needs to avoid a repeat of last year where he was beaten to the chequered flag by Liam Lawson. However the team’s reserve driver is more a cause for concern to Tsunoda’s team mate Daniel Ricciardo, who has not impressed so far in the second RB.

However Ricciardo’s efforts to get to grips with their new car won’t be helped by his absence from first practice. RB is giving a run to junior driver Ayumu Iwasa, currently racing in Japan’s Super Formula series, meaning it will have an all-Japanese line-up for the first practice session.

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Mercedes the fifth team?

George Russell, Mercedes, Albert Park, 2024
Mercedes’ best finish so far is fifth
The penalty which cost Fernando Alonso sixth place in the Australian Grand Prix had a significance to Mercedes beyond merely highlighting his role in George Russell’s crash.

It also spared the manufacturer team the humiliation of falling to fifth place in the constructors championship behind two of its customers. It heads to Suzuka fourth in the standings, just one point ahead of Alonso’s Aston Martin team.

It may prove difficult for the team to keep its neck above that waterline this weekend. The W15 has not been strong in high-speed corners so far, and there’s plenty of those at Suzuka. Aston Martin have tended to qualify strongly, so their drivers may again find themselves resisting pressure from a chasing Mercedes over the closing stages.

Williams back to full strength?

Mercedes can at least console themselves with the thought one of their customer teams is unlikely to beat them this weekend. Williams got into a pickle all by themselves in Melbourne as they were down to just one car by the second day of running, due to Alexander Albon’s heavy crash. Their decision to displace Logan Sargeant from his seat so Albon could drive was hotly debated, though he ended up just one place away from a point.

The team fully expects to have two chassis ready for this weekend, but will again have no spare. That’s a risky situation to face at Suzuka, where the speeds are high and the barriers are close. It will be a nervy time on the Williams pit wall as they hope both drivers keep it out of the barriers this weekend – just as Sargeant failed to do in Q1 last year.

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Drivers slowing down

Fernando Alonso, George Russell, Albert Park, 2024
Stewards penalised Alonso for suddenly slowing
Alonso’s penalty for slowing sharply in front of George Russell on the penultimate lap of the Australian Grand Prix provoked much debate over exactly what he was doing, how far he intended to hinder Russell, and at what point does a legitimate defensive move leave a rival facing an unavoidable crash?

It’s an area of discussion where drivers’ views should take greatest weight. It will be fascinating to learn what their rivals made of the incident and penalty, particularly those with no need to favour either team.

Teams slowing down

At the previous round in Jeddah, Kevin Magnussen demonstrated how to delay a rival more gradually over a series of laps, holding up a queue of cars to help team mate Nico Hulkenberg score a valuable point.

Such tactics are easier to pull off at some circuits than others. Albert Park’s two pairs of DRS zones made defending in this way almost impossible (which was why Alonso resorted to such an extreme move). But Suzuka, with its winding first two sectors, is another track where this kind of tactic could work – much as Jacques Villeneuve attempted in 1997.

With points only covering the top 10 places, and the five quickest teams likely to lock those out, the incentive for midfield teams to try similar tactics could be strong if the cards fall the right way after the start.

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Suzuka’s title-deciding days are done

Since the Japanese Grand Prix first joined the world championship calendar in 1976, with a race at Fuji Speedway, it has always been held in the second half of the season. That first championship-deciding race, and many more subsequent ones at Suzuka, have become fixtures in the folklore of F1.

That changes this year. The 2024 F1 calendar is the longest in the series’ history and Liberty Media has moved this round in a bid to reduce travel time and cut emissions. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the race, but the days of title-deciding dramas in Japan are behind us.

Komatsu impressing at Haas

Ayao Komatsu, Haas, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024 pre-season test
Haas have started well under Komatsu
The Japanese Grand Prix will be a triumphant homecoming for Haas team principal Ayao Komatsu, who can take pride in how his team has performed during his first three rounds in charge. Haas ended last year at the bottom of the standings but lie seventh after claiming three top-10 places so far.

“I left Japan 30 years ago and I didn’t think that in 30 years’ time I’d come back to the Japanese Grand Prix as a team principal,” said Komatsu. “So I think it’s a pretty special moment.”

However Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen will have to produce something really special for Komatsu to improve on his best memory of competing at Suzuka so far – when he engineering Romain Grosjean’s third place for Lotus behind a different dominant Red Bull duo 11 years ago.

“We were leading into turn one with an amazing start and we were leading the race for I think about half of the race against the quicker Red Bull,” he remembered. “So that was pretty special.”

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Bianchi 10 years on

Between this Japanese Grand Prix and the next, 10 years will have passed since Jules Bianchi’s terrible crash in the 2014 race, which ultimately claimed his life.

It remains the most recent crash to have claimed the life of an F1 driver, and while the series has taken many steps to improve safety standards since then, it can never afford to be complacent. Pierre Gasly’s shocking encounter with a course vehicle in pouring rain during the 2022 race, so shockingly reminiscent of Bianchi’s appalling crash, was an urgent reminder of F1’s need to remain vigilant.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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15 comments on “Red Bull upgrade rumours and tactical slowing: Nine Japanese GP talking points”

  1. Will there be any repercussions regarding the Taiwan earthquake and resultant tsunami threat in that area of the world?

    1. Not at all as the epic centre was a long way from the circuit and there was no tsunami (alert yes but no wave)

    2. Tragic news for Taiwan, but the tsunami warnings have been called off for Japan and Korea

  2. Good to know the updates, thanks both!

  3. Red Bull rebound
    – Definitely, although the big difference between the last event & the most recent Singapore GP is that unlike with the latter, Max lost a win only because of a brake failure rather than one-off subpar performance, so not entirely like-to-like situation.

    Tsunoda rising, Iwasa arriving – Yes, although whether the latter gets a full-time drive at some point is another matter.

    Mercedes the fifth team? – On average the third best on pure pace for the most part, but given the track characteristics, they could indeed struggle againts Mclaren & AM

    Williams back to full strength? – They should be, although Suzuka at least has more runoff space than Albert Park, so the risk of ending up in the same situation is lower,, but not having a spare monocoque on site again is still embarrassing for modern standards.

    Drivers slowing down – I’m still skeptical about the new precedent FIA’s questionable decision set, but so hopefully, things won’t become a mess as a consequence.

    Teams slowing down – A possibility since Suzuka isn’t among the most overtaking-friendly circuits, but if a similar situation were to happen, hopefully it at least wouldn’t start because of gaining or maintaining a position in a questionable manner.

    Suzuka’s title-deciding days are done – Certainly & having the Japanese GP at this time of year feels weird but this feeling will only be temporary until getting wholly used to this change, so probably not a thing anymore around 12 months from now.

    Komatsu impressing at Haas – Indeed, & for the team’s & his sake, I hope this trend continues.

    Bianchi 10 years on – While Gasly’s encounter was entirely preventable if JCB operator had waited until getting the go ahead from race control, Gasly was also responsible for the outcome as he drove overly fast under red-flag conditions.
    However, the early-season switch reduces the likelihood of rain-affected (especially heavy) running as April’s precipitation average is lower than both September’s & October’s.

    1. Yes, however it wasn’t at all clear cut verstappen would’ve won last race, that’s why it’s a real shame he had a mechanical problem, their performance was the weakest I’ve seen in a long while and it could’ve been a close race.

    2. I wonder if we’ll see verstappen’s aggressive side return when he actually gets put under pressure from battles – but you don’t see much of them nowadays, just boring highway passes.

    3. Gasly?
      Error, you mean Bianchi.


        Another “posting before checking” situation from Racefans’ very own occy…

  4. Will the Horner allegations rise up again?the media silently dropped the subject. Begs the question why.

    1. The latest development is in today’s round-up.

      The media

      “The media” is a large and mixed group – who are you referring to? As I see it, some publications have avoided any mention of it, but many others have and continue to regularly.

    2. The process is slow. But even if many outlets are afraid to cover the content of the leaked material, it still seems pretty clear that nothing illegal happened. So then it’s a question of how one views the situation in a broader perspective.

      For some, Horner’s sleazy antics are a big ‘who cares’. F1 is full of dubious characters. To others, it’s nothing new. It’s hard to watch F1 for a few years and not know about Horner’s prior shenanigans. And as always, most just want to cover F1 and don’t want to get involved (and risk being singled out).

      So it’s the reaction from the outside world that’s the biggest variable, and it’s pretty clear that F1 has failed to impress, and has undone much of their slick attempts to portray themselves as an inclusive environment. But F1 is not half as important as some think, so the outside media will move on soon enough.

      1. How can you state with such confidence that “nothing illegal happened” when the case is currently scheduled to go to arbitration with an employment tribunal and Red Bull itself has refused to confirm or deny what exactly did happen?

        At the moment, the individual involved is invoking their right to have an independent body review this case. It is therefore wrong to make such absolute statements in either direction, since there are ongoing legal proceedings into Horner’s conduct that may, or may not, come to different conclusions about his conduct and whether his actions were legal or illegal.

  5. @keithcollantine I’ve been seeing a lot of speculation that Ferrari is bringing a sizable upgrade package to this race as well, but I don’t see it mentioned in your talking points. Is it just unsubstantiated rumour and wishful thinking at this point?

    1. Ferrari them self have said a small upgrade as they push for a big one for Imola.

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