Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Suzuka, 2024

Verstappen springs Red Bull back to winning ways at unexpectedly warm Suzuka

2024 Japanese GP report

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Across Japan, the pretty pale pink petals of the Sakura tree have become nature’s way of signalling that spring has officially come.

As the season that follows the cold and dark days of winter, spring is celebrated for how it promises new beginnings and opportunities.

So as Formula 1 arrived at the Suzuka International Racing Course in the month of April for the first time ever, the cherry blossoms could have been taken as a good omen. With Red Bull suffering a rear defeat in the previous round in Australia following Max Verstappen’s early brake failure and Sergio Perez’s lack of race pace, would they prove vulnerable again at one of the truly great and challenging circuits on the calendar?

On Saturday, Red Bull’s first front row lock-out in over a year appeared to have answered that question with a resounding ‘no’.

Start, Suzuka, 2024
No repeat of last year’s pit straight collision…
Verstappen maintained his monopoly on the top spot of the grid but Perez was less than a tenth behind him. Lando Norris put McLaren closest to the Red Bulls for the second straight season in Suzuka in third place, while Melbourne winner Carlos Sainz Jnr was fourth with Fernando Alonso set to start his 18th grand prix around Suzuka in fifth position.

The earlier slot for the race had brought cooler temperatures across the opening two days as track temperatures never breached 30C on Friday or Saturday. Early forecast midweek had left the possibility of rain open, but as the drivers sat on the grid, the track was over 40C. A race that was already tough on tyres would see drivers facing an even greater challenge.

Ten of the first 11 cars on the grid left the dummy grid sporting fresh medium tyres – Alonso the only rebel having fitted softs. But seven of the lowest nine drivers had joined him and were eager to make the most of what should hopefully be superior traction to the cars ahead of them at the start.

Daniel Ricciardo and Alexander Albon crash, Suzuka, 2024
…but turn three clash triggered stoppage
Verstappen had not yet been beaten to turn one in 2024 and despite Perez’s best efforts, he successfully converted pole into the lead for a fourth time when the lights went out. Sainz challenged Norris for third but backed out through the first run and as they ran up to turn three, the top nine drivers had all retained their positions off the line.

Back in the pack, however, the two RBs of Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo were swamped by the soft started behind them. Ricciardo looked to his inside mirror at Lance Stroll threateningly close behind him, but then a moment later something suddenly sent him spinning and skidding through the outside gravel trap and into the tyre wall. That something was Alexander Albon’s Williams.

“I don’t think Daniel saw me and then it was just a bit of a pinching moment,” Albon later explained. “I tried to back out of it but I couldn’t quite get out of the way quick enough.”

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Ricciardo’s collision put him out on the spot, while Albon’s did a number on the tyre wall as well as his Williams. Despite the visible damage to the structure, racing continued for almost 20 more seconds before race director Niels Wittich red flagged proceedings. The field crawled back to the pits to line up, with many drivers seeking the shade of the pit building as they did so.

Restart, Suzuka, 2024
Take two: Verstappen keeps his lead, Mercedes slip back
Just under 30 minutes after Wittich had pressed the Big Red Button, the green light appeared at the end of pit lane to send the two Red Bulls out to lead the field around to a second standing start. But while they and Norris remained on their initial set of mediums, Sainz had switched to a new set along with Ferrari team mate Leclerc in eighth. More interestingly, the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton in seventh and ninth-placed George Russell reemerged from the pit lane both on hard tyres. Having already satisfied their two-compound requirement for the race, there was a possibility they could try and stretch out the remaining 51 laps on a one-stop.

The restart provided much the same outcome as the initial one. Despite some wheelspin as he punched through the lower gears, Verstappen had enough room to hog the inside line from his team mate to again keep his lead through turn one. The only position change in the top ten came when Leclerc boldly swept around the outside of Hamilton at turn three for seventh, appearing to make slight contact with the Mercedes as he did so.

Further back, tenth-placed Nico Hulkenberg’s Haas sank like a stone down the order after a poor getaway. This caused some drama for those driving around him as both Alpines of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon clashed together on the run to turn one, giving the team mates bad enough damage that would ultimately doom them both to a lonely race at the back.

At the end of the first racing lap, Verstappen’s lead over Perez sat at just under a second with Norris and Sainz still fourth and fifth while Alonso retained fifth on his soft tyres. Perez kept the gap at around a second until lap six, when Perez ran just slightly wide at the exit of the second Degner, roughly riding the jagged kerbing as he did so. That minor blip cost Perez over a second to his team mate, but Norris behind was not able to take advantage and put the second Red Bull under any pressure.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Suzuka, 2024
Hamilton volunteered to let Russell pas him
Soon, the radio waves were filled with droning drivers complaining about their ill-balanced cars on the unexpectedly warm asphalt. Norris was warned McLaren were considering plan-B, which was soon seemingly confirmed when he darted into the pit lane moments later to be the first of the leaders to pit, fitting a set of hard tyres. Team mate Piastri followed on the next lap, McLaren seemingly putting their faith in the power of the undercut.

Hamilton was still in touch of Leclerc ahead of him, but team mate Russell behind was closer. The touch with Leclerc at the restart, Hamilton believed, may have left him with minor damage and he realised he was likely not going to be his team’s sharpest weapon over the rest of the race. He offered to allow Russell through, before doing so approaching the chicane.

With Verstappen’s lead now at five seconds, his two closest pursuers, Perez and Sainz, both pitted for mediums at the end of lap 15. But when they emerged, Norris was ahead of the Red Bull with the two Mercedes between them, which Perez first had to dispatch through back-to-back passes at 130R before he could close up on the McLaren. Verstappen also made his first stop for another set of mediums on the next lap, successfully keeping ahead of the McLaren driver before setting off in chase of Leclerc who, not for the first time, was attempting to do something different to the cars around him by extending his first stint.

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Verstappen sailed by the Ferrari to reclaim his lead at the start of lap 21, before Perez took back his second place from Norris on the following lap. Luckily for Perez, he wouldn’t have to work hard to get by Leclerc himself as the Ferrari made an exaggerated version of the same error Perez had committed earlier by running wide at the second Degner. That was enough for Ferrari to finally bring him in for hard tyres to last the remaining 26 laps.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Suzuka, 2024
Norris made an early first visit to the pits
Almost at the same time Leclerc made his first stop of the afternoon, Norris was in for his second. With new hard tyres four laps younger than Russell’s, Norris slipped by the Mercedes and into seventh place.

Verstappen’s advantage out front was now at ten seconds over Perez. The leader had made a minor front wing adjustment during his first stop, which had only increased his confidence in the car.

“Basically after the first stint, some tiny adjustments were made to the car and that helped me then to feel even more comfortable and whenever I needed to go faster, I could,” he explained after the race. “Whenever I needed to look after my tyres, I could. That’s always a very nice feeling to have once you’re driving.”

Perez pitted first of the Red Bulls once more as they switched onto the hards for their final stints of the race. That handed the lead over to Sainz while Perez dropped behind Norris and Leclerc who was now in the thick of his long second stint trying to get to the end of the race. Perez quickly picked off the two pretenders over consecutive laps to move back behind his team mate, before Sainz eventually came in for his second stop and fell down to seventh.

George Russell, Carlos Sainz Jnr, Mercedes, Suzuka, 2024
Running long didn’t pay off for Mercedes
By now, the entire top 12 were running on hard tyres of various ages. With clouds covering over the sky since the start of the race, track temperature had dropped from over 40 degrees to much nearer 30. Coupled with much lighter at this stage of the race, the tyres were beginning to have an easier time of it.

One-stopper Leclerc naturally began to fall away from the Red Bulls, with Norris also following suit with equally old rubber. With Verstappen and Perez appearing in total control out front, the real intrigue was who would finish behind them – and Sainz was best placed to attack.

Russell’s second stop gifted Sainz sixth, then passed Hamilton on track for fifth before Hamilton had the opportunity to make his own switch onto the mediums. Sainz had 16 laps left to make up six seconds on Norris and then get by his team mate to secure a podium.

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With Sainz approaching, Norris was the next to make a slight error at the exit of Degner 2. He resignedly warned his team that the Ferrari driver would “easily pass me” and so it would prove when, on lap 44, Sainz breezed by in the sole DRS zone to take fourth. Soon after, Ferrari cautioned Leclerc to “not lose time with Sainz” due to the threat of Norris behind and he duly moved aside with eight laps remaining to usher Sainz through and up into third.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, Suzuka, 2024
Alonso tried to help Piastri keep Russell at bay
The podium positions now seemingly secured, the attention turned to Russell in eighth, who was quickly gaining ground with fresher medium tyres on the hard-shod Piastri ahead – with Alonso just beyond him in sixth. By lap 49, Russell was within striking distance of Piastri. Alonso, presumably eager to avoid falling victim to the Mercedes after him, appeared to deliberately back off to try and get the McLaren within DRS range of him, negating the benefit that Russell would get from his own.

Stalking the McLaren along the back straight and through 130R, Russell attempted a bold pass from more than a car-length behind into the final chicane. While he made the apex, Piastri skipped the final part of the chicane after the pair made slight contact in the right-hander, keeping his position. The stewards would deem it all fair enough in a post-race investigation, but Russell was now even more determined to get by.

He had to wait until the final lap of the race to do it, but by then Piastri’s defences were exhausted. He drove around the McLaren along the pit straight, even with Piastri having the advantage of DRS of his own, taking seventh from him as he did so.

But while this battle for six points had raged, there had been no doubt over who would be taking home the full 25 – and even the bonus point for fastest lap. After Red Bull’s lowest scoring round in over two years in Melbourne, Verstappen had not just returned to winning ways instantly, but Perez’s performance over the weekend had seemingly thwarted any hopes that Albert Park was a sign their dominance may be about to wane.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Suzuka, 2024
Verstappen resumed his winning ways after Melbourne blip
Verstappen completed lap 53 to take win number 57 of his career, at the end of a weekend where he had been fastest in every single session he had participated in. It was also his second successful Suzuka hat trick of pole, victory and the fastest lap.

“Of course, Melbourne felt like a bit of a hiccup but what we did today, that’s what we want to do,” Verstappen said. “And that’s what we aim to do every single weekend.”

Perez was 12 seconds behind his team mate at the flag – securing a third one-two for Red Bull in the first four rounds. While not able to challenge Verstappen for victory, he felt he at least understood why.

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“Unfortunately, I think we got caught out with the increase of temperature,” he explained. “I think with the balance, we just couldn’t get on top of that in the first stint, which meant that the degradation was a little bit higher.”

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Suzuka, 2024
Three starts, three podium finishes for Sainz this year
Sainz may have gained just one place from his starting position to take the final podium spot, but he’d had to work hard to get there.

“I was hopeful of achieving a podium that in the end we managed to achieve, even if it was a very tough race, very strategic,” said Sainz. “At one point, I thought the podium wasn’t possible, but then with a new hard, the pace was mega and I could get back onto the podium.”

Leclerc’s fourth place after his one-stop strategy prompted a conflict of emotions from the Ferrari driver as the congratulations from his team after the chequered flag were met with radio silence until he was informed he had been voted Driver of the Day. “I thought we could’ve done something better at one point,” he eventually replied. “But that’s life.”

Yuki Tsunoda, RB, Suzuka, 2024
Tsunoda impressively out-ran Stroll for final point
Norris was content, bordering on disappointed in fifth after falling from 19 seconds from Verstappen at the finish in Japan in September to 29 seconds drift in April. Alonso hailed sixth as one of his best performances for Aston Martin, with Russell just under two seconds behind in seventh, Piastri eighth and Hamilton ninth. With Lance Stroll the only driver of the top five teams not to finish in the points, his place was instead taken by Yuki Tsunoda who thrilled the Japanese fans by taking the final point in tenth that was as hard-earned as any from the day.

The sakura around Suzuka had failed to usher in the change that many might’ve hoped to see, with Red Bull coming away from Japan looking as strong as they ever have in the early part of 2023. But while Verstappen was naturally happy to be leaving Japan with a full quota of points and an extended championship lead following his failure to finish in the last round, he did at least offer some hope to his rivals that they would not always be as strong as they had been over this weekend.

“I know there will be tracks coming up that might not be so favourable for us,” he said. “But then, of course, when we do get to tracks where we know that we can be quick, we have to really take advantage of it and score the maximum amount of points as a team, and that’s what we’ll continue to try and do.”

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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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14 comments on “Verstappen springs Red Bull back to winning ways at unexpectedly warm Suzuka”

  1. Yaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnn!!!

    1. After the race summary and the race analysis, here comes the race report. Can’t wait for the race summary report.

      1. Yes. It seems like slight variations of the same article keep getting published.

      2. Coventry Climax
        8th April 2024, 15:03

        And for the race summary analysis report, and let’s also not forget the race summary analysis statistics report, although these offer less room for poetic language.

  2. Coventry Climax
    8th April 2024, 10:56

    I won’t buy the book or a ticket to the movie made out of it, sorry.

  3. Some negativity above. I think it was a great race. Sure the winner was predictable, but as a race it was enjoyable. There were battles all through the grid with different strategies and on track action.

    1. Yes (@come-on-kubica)
      8th April 2024, 11:44

      I think this era of cars has beaten the fans badly into thinking this was good. Poor cars, poor tyres and predictable running order even with the difference in strategies.

      1. My childhood was spent watching cars running very far appart from each other in the late 90s early 2000s so sorry if this race felt more exciting.

        I’d ditch the DRS tho. That’s just a buzz killer.

    2. I agree, I had a lot of fun seeing the battles through the field, with Sainz, Tsunoda and Stroll pulling off pretty amazing moves, Perez making a few really solid ones and the defense against Russel Alonso (and Piastri) gave us towards the end also made for a high not in the closing stages.

      Especially for Suzuka, this was a better race than average, even more so for a dry race.

  4. Josh (@canadianjosh)
    8th April 2024, 22:34

    I’m having an incredibly hard time tuning into this predictable Red Bull domination right now. Japan was the first race I’ve missed in years. The hype of a race weekend is gone. The pre race shows can’t sell the first corner drama anymore because we know what will happen. This Red Bull/ Verstappen dominance is BORING

    1. Yes, again I had very low expectations, and given the current situation even if time-wise I could’ve watched the race live, I was not interested, because I cannot speed up the moments where nothing happens, so I just watched the replay later and sent forward 5 sec every time nothing was happening, and that meant I ended up watching at normal speed a good chunk of the race cause there were interesting battles between the cars directly following red bulls, again nothing extraordinary when place number 1 and 2 are locked in, the awesome battle between alonso, piastri and russell for example was for 6th, 7th and 8th place, a bit of a meagre haul when you compare to austin 2018, where we had 3 drivers exactly in the same position (all 3 within 2 sec of each other) but fighting for the win, raikkonen, verstappen and hamilton with hamilton being faster than verstappen, so exact same situation, but much better than circumstances than now.

  5. Senna winning — Boring
    Schumacher winning — Boring
    Hamilton winning — Awesome best racing and best driver ever
    Verstappen winning — Yaaaaaaaaaaawn

    enough said

    1. Well yes, but His tires were gone and these guys are really fast so ..

  6. Best race so far. Still terribly boring though. I’d take a season like 2019 in a heartbeat.

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