Feature F1 Unlocked
Red Bull on the brink of title glory and Piastri’s podium potential – What To Watch For in the Japanese GP
From Red Bull on the verge of winning the constructors’ championship to Oscar Piastri looking for a first podium; and from Yuki Tsunoda in the top 10 at his home race to Logan Sargeant needing to bounce back after a crash, Chris Medland highlights five key things to look out for on race day at Suzuka…
1. Red Bull championship permutations
Normal service was resumed on Saturday with Red Bull looking extremely impressive and Max Verstappen securing pole position by over half a second with a stunning lap. The championship leader was the only driver to break the 1m29s barrier, and has given his team a great chance of wrapping up the constructors’ title on Sunday.
To do that, Red Bull need to outscore Mercedes by just one point, and ensure Ferrari do not outscore them by more than 23 points, which would secure a second consecutive constructors’ championship for Christian Horner’s outfit.
The equation is relatively simple. If Verstappen converts pole into victory, then Ferrari are already out of the picture as the most they could outscore Red Bull by is nine points. Where Mercedes are concerned, if one car is outside the top seven then it’s a done deal too. A Verstappen win would mean Sergio Perez can ensure the title is over with a top five finish regardless of other results.
If a Red Bull wins but the other car doesn’t score, then Mercedes would need to get at least one car on the podium to prevent the celebrations.
And there are plenty of combinations of Red Bull results in between that will do the job, so the graphics team will keep you up to date as the race unfolds.
2. Piastri chasing a maiden podium
McLaren have been hugely impressive since their Austria upgrade was introduced, and Oscar Piastri has certainly shone during his rookie season so far. But he is yet to have a moment on the podium to show for it, after missing out cruelly due to a Safety Car at Silverstone.
In Budapest he also faded when in contention for a trophy, and then his excellent second place in the Sprint in Belgium was followed by a first lap retirement in the Grand Prix so he didn’t get the chance to follow-up then either.
But McLaren have looked like the outright second fastest car for much of this weekend and their high-speed cornering advantage should help them look after their tyres in a race that is expected to feature significant levels of degradation, so they are well placed to capitalise on the opportunity with Piastri starting second and Lando Norris third.
The start will be crucial and Piastri knows that multiple pit stops do increase the chances of positions being lost through strategy at some stage, but the rookie has his best chance of celebrating his new contract with a top three result.
3. The ongoing battle to be best of the rest
McLaren’s strong weekend so far has put them in a promising position to claw back even more points in the constructors’ standings compared to Aston Martin, where the gap is currently 78 points.
But Fernando Alonso has a chance of adding to his team’s tally from 10th on the grid, with his race craft often helping him make the most of any opportunity.
The battle between Ferrari and Mercedes continues to intensify too, after Carlos Sainz’s victory in Singapore saw the Scuderia close to within 34 points of Mercedes in second place. And Ferrari start ahead of the Silver Arrows pair at Suzuka, with Charles Leclerc in fourth and Sainz in sixth, while Lewis Hamilton and George Russell are seventh and eighth respectively.
They might not be fighting for the win this weekend – or at least it looks unlikely at this stage – but both teams will be battling as hard as ever for positions against each other given the championship picture.
4. Tsunoda putting on a show at his home race
It has been a very good weekend for Yuki Tsunoda so far, as he enjoys huge support from the Japanese fanbase at his home race. And before he qualified in the top 10 his Saturday had already got off to a great start with confirmation he will be keeping his seat next season.
Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo were confirmed as the two race drivers for AlphaTauri – with Liam Lawson returning to a reserve driver role for both Red Bull teams – and there was even a point where Tsunoda was able to address the crowd in the main grandstand from the podium ahead of track running getting underway for the day.
If there’s any added pressure on him at his home race, it doesn’t seem to affect him as he advanced impressively to Q3 and will go after a solid haul of points on Sunday.
Keep an eye on Lawson too, who has been impressive since standing in for Ricciardo and will also have a bit of a point to prove having been overlooked for a full-time race seat with AlphaTauri next year.
5. Sargeant’s response
While one rookie continues to impress, another has been having a tough spell of races that continued in qualifying in Japan. Logan Sargeant crashed at the start of Q1 to leave him starting 20th on the grid and his Williams team with a lot of repair work to do overnight.
It’s the second time Sargeant has crashed in qualifying in the past four races – his Zandvoort incident coming amid his first Q3 appearance – and he also hit the wall when having a solid run in Singapore last weekend.
With news of Lawson’s potential availability to be loaned to another team due to the AlphaTauri decision, Sargeant could do with a response on Sunday having seen a promising weekend hit by the Q1 crash.
He will at least have a lot of strategic options to try and make progress from the back of the field – with team mate Alex Albon targeting points from 13th – but the most important target for the young American will be a clean, error-free run in the race to help him start to rebuild some confidence.