Feature F1 Unlocked
PRACTICE DEBRIEF: Red Bull appear to be back on form in Japan but is there still hope for rival teams?
Normal service was resumed in Suzuka as Max Verstappen took his familiar position at the top of the timesheets, following a lacklustre performance last time out in Singapore. But will he have it all his own way in qualifying and the race – or could the likes of Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Aston Martin get in on the act?
Red Bull back in control at Suzuka
“From Lap 1, the car was enjoyable to drive.” The chilled, smiley demeanour that has characterised Max Verstappen for most of the season was back on Friday, as the Red Bull racer danced his RB19 around Suzuka with aplomb.
That his car felt good even in very low grip conditions – which his rivals lamented as they struggled to find a good balance – suggests that he and Red Bull are back and overwhelming favourites to take pole and the Grand Prix victory.
They have a three tenths of a second advantage over the pack in qualifying trim and race trim, their gains coming in the high-speed corners, of which there are many around Suzuka, and medium-speed turns – and are only a fraction off in the slow corners (which are located at the final chicane).
Degradation was high for everyone – with the hard tyre looking like a very strong race tyre – but Red Bull seemed to cope with it better than everyone else.
Ferrari renaissance continues
Ferrari have looked revitalised in the last two events, with Carlos Sainz giving the Scuderia back-to-back poles and Ferrari Team Principal Fred Vasseur a first Grand Prix win.
And while maintaining that streak looks unlikely in Japan, their pace on Friday was very impressive, with Charles Leclerc reckoning that Ferrari aren’t “too far off” Red Bull. Our data puts them second-best in the field, across both qualifying and race metrics.
They brought a new floor to Japan, with Charles Leclerc running it in the morning before Sainz got his hands on it as well in the afternoon. Sainz said the team spent the day trying different mechanical settings and set-ups as part of a series of experiments. The challenge now is to put it all together for the weekend.
Mercedes on the back foot
Mercedes didn’t have the smoothest of Fridays as both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell struggled to find grip and a nice balance with the car – and while they made progress into FP2, they both know they have a lot of time to find overnight.
The team say the first sector – which has lots of high-speed corners and quick changes of direction – is a “particular weakness for us” and will be where they will focus their main effort tonight.
They are fourth in the pecking order in qualifying sims, three quarters of a second off the pace, and a tenth further back in race pace – where they are traditionally stronger. And it’s Russell who looks the more comfortable driver of the pair as it stands.
McLaren very much in the mix
This was a pretty smooth Friday for McLaren, who are continuing their impressive upward trajectory in terms of relative pace to class-leaders Red Bull.
Lando Norris was the stand-out McLaren driver – and while he felt a bit all over the place in practice as the car slid around, he was still very fast – and genuinely looks like a threat for the second row at least, and possibly a podium come Sunday.
His team mate Oscar Piastri looked encouraging too, the Australian getting the full upgrade package that debuted in Singapore for the first time.
They’re third-best in both qualifying and race trim, between 0.55s and 0.67s off the pace of Red Bull. They’re close to Ferrari on low fuel, but drift away in race trim.
Aston Martin hanging on
Aston Martin looked like solid top-10 contenders after Friday practice, with Fernando Alonso the stronger of the two drivers in green as Lance Stroll got back up to speed after missing the last race following a heavy crash in qualifying.
Aston lacked performance in the medium and high-speed turns relative to Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren, and will likely face a threat from Williams’ Alex Albon – who was mighty over one lap, courtesy of a huge advantage on the straights – in the fight for Q3.
They have better race pace over the rest of the midfield, which suggests points for both cars will be a minimum expectation.