RACE DEBRIEF

    F1 drivers got a taste of Suzuka for the first time in three years when practice got under way for the Japanese Grand Prix, but they were unable to unleash their respective cars’ potential because of persistent – and at times heavy – rain. But there were still some takeaways…

    1. Tsunoda revels in home debut

    You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more hyped about this weekend than Yuki Tsunoda, the Japanese racer giddy with excitement as he experienced Suzuka for the first time in Formula 1 machinery.

    He looked accomplished out on a track where four years ago, he came to watch the action as a fan. The AlphaTauri driver said he felt emotional when he turned his first lap and manage to “enjoy” the experience rather than “feeling pressure.”

    READ MORE: 'Emotional' Tsunoda says long-awaited home debut is a 'dream come true'

    With dry conditions expected tomorrow, it’s unclear just how competitive he will be in qualifying – but it’s positive for an expectant crowd that he has “pretty good confidence”.

    The grandstands have been packed, despite the conditions, fans supporting a range of drivers but a large chunk showing ‘Yuki fever’, the 22-year-old’s face plastered on big banners across the venue. He’ll be hoping to give them something to celebrate.

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    2. Mercedes make progress with wet set-up

    The timesheets had a look of the recent past with Mercedes locking in a one-two at Suzuka on Friday, as George Russell and Lewis Hamilton generated some encouraging performance on the intermediate tyres.

    Their trackside chief Andrew Shovlin admitted the classification is “not a fair reflection of pace” as their times were set on new tyres, but they do believe they are “in a reasonable” position compared to Red Bull and Ferrari.

    READ MORE: Russell leads Hamilton in Mercedes one-two in wet second practice at Suzuka

    After their relative struggles in slippery conditions in Singapore, any learning in the wet – and in particular reading a track when its in a crossover from wet to intermediate -will be useful for future qualifying sessions and races.

    Dry conditions are expected tomorrow, and with teams able to carry a third set of tyres into FP3 because of the wet weather on Friday, the one-hour session will be hectic. Get to grips with the track quickly and Mercedes could haul themselves into the fight.

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    Russell set the fastest time in Friday practice

    3. Alpine in good shape to head midfield as Alonso sets FP1 pace

    After their double retirement in Singapore, Alpine were keen to have a more fruitful weekend in Japan – and the early signs were positive.

    While little can be read into Fernando Alonso’s table-topping time in FP1, as teams kept running to a minimum, the French team were able to quickly find a good car balance in the slippery conditions.

    READ MORE: ‘It’s the best track in the world’ – Drivers revel in F1’s return to Suzuka

    Both drivers felt very comfortable in the car and were able to get a strong feel for the car on both low- and high-fuel.

    With rain predicted on Sunday, should it strike during the race – these learnings could be crucial in helping the team maximise their opportunities.

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    4. Red Bull remain favourites for this weekend

    Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez were at pains to say that the two sessions weren’t representative because of the rain, but ask those who crunch numbers in the paddock and they’ll tell you they are still the ones to beat this weekend.

    The track layout suits their car and while they will only have one practice session in the dry before qualifying – like everyone else – to get the car into the right window, their advantage here will likely still be enough to keep them in front.

    READ MORE: ‘We’ll be starting from zero tomorrow’ – Verstappen intrigued by changeable Suzuka weather conditions

    Significantly, Perez was in the best mood he’s been on a Friday for quite some time, the Mexican clearly still buoyed by his Singapore win but also happy that he had a smooth Friday, which is not something he has achieved often this year.

    An in-form Perez and a Verstappen keen to put a disappointing Singapore Grand Prix behind him is a potent force – and one that might yield a second title for the latter.

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    5. Ferrari have mixed day but offer Red Bull threat

    Ferrari arrived at Suzuka knowing Red Bull would have the edge on them – and that’s likely to transpire. But the wet conditions on Friday proved that anything can happen, with several drivers – including Charles Leclerc – skating off.

    Sainz struggled in the wet in Singapore, which is unusual given they are conditions he usually excels in. On Friday, he completed a series of tests which meant he could find his rhythm quickly and “was back at home” on a slippery track.

    READ MORE: Leclerc positive despite ‘very, very difficult’ start to Japanese GP weekend

    Leclerc said the car feels good, despite a few off-track excursions and running out of tyres which limited his running.

    However both he and Sainz are aware they need to get the car set-up nailed early doors in FP3 so they can ensure they are in the fight come qualifying.