Verstappen and Red Bull return to form as they charge to pole ahead of the McLarens at Suzuka
Max Verstappen and his Red Bull team brushed off a challenging weekend in Singapore by storming to pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, getting the better of McLaren pair Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris during Saturday’s qualifying session at Suzuka.
Verstappen clocked a time of 1m 29.012s in the early minutes of Q3 and improved to a 1m 28.877s on his second run, a dominant performance that put him more than half a second clear of Piastri and Norris – who could not better their initial laps – as the chequered flag dropped.
Charles Leclerc pipped the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez to fourth position, with team mate Carlos Sainz rounding out the top six positions, the two Ferrari drivers only completing one lap apiece in the pole shootout after using up more soft tyres earlier on.
Following their tricky first day of practice, Mercedes had to settle for seventh and eighth in qualifying, with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton ahead of George Russell, who was another to be limited to just one attempt in Q3.
Home favourite Yuki Tsunoda, fresh from being announced at AlphaTauri alongside Daniel Ricciardo for the 2024 season, put in a fine drive to ninth position, with Fernando Alonso the last of the Q3 runners – also sticking to one lap – and landing 10th on the grid.
FORMULA 1 LENOVO JAPANESE GRAND PRIX 2023
|1 Max Verstappen VER Red Bull Racing||1:28.877|
|2 Oscar Piastri PIA McLaren||1:29.458|
|3 Lando Norris NOR McLaren||1:29.493|
|4 Charles Leclerc LEC Ferrari||1:29.542|
|5 Sergio Perez PER Red Bull Racing||1:29.650|
F1 newcomer Liam Lawson came agonisingly close to another Q3 outing but had to settle for 11th position, followed by the Alpines of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, who were split by Alex Albon’s Williams, and the lead Haas of Kevin Magnussen.
Alfa Romeo lost both cars at the Q1 hurdle, with Valtteri Bottas just missing the cut in 16th position and Zhou Guanyu placing 19th, the Chinese racer having been seen running wildly wide and losing his final lap for exceeding track limits, while also reporting traffic.
Lance Stroll and Nico Hulkenberg followed in the other Aston Martin and Haas machines, with Williams rookie Logan Sargeant bringing up the rear behind the aforementioned Zhou after crashing out of proceedings midway through the opening phase.
Sargeant entered the weekend with more questions being asked about his F1 future and, having vowed to cut out mistakes, he dramatically lost control of his Williams at the final corner, took a trip through the gravel and slammed into the barriers, bringing out a red flag.
There could yet be a twist in the tale before Sunday’s race, however, with Leclerc, Zhou and Bottas all under investigation post-session for allegedly failing to follow the Race Director’s instructions regarding maximum lap time.
AS IT HAPPENED
Q1 – Verstappen sets the pace as Sargeant crashes out
With a tough Singapore weekend behind them, and having topped all three practice sessions around the fast, flowing Suzuka circuit, Verstappen and Red Bull were back in their usual position of favourites heading into qualifying – but could any of their rivals land another upset?
As the first phase began amid bright and warm conditions, Stroll and Lawson were quick to head out and get some early banker laps in, while the other 18 drivers bided their time and spent the opening few minutes sitting in their pit garages.
With more cars trickling out on track, practice pace-setter Verstappen stated his intentions from the off by pumping in a time of 1m 29.878s, putting him a couple of tenths clear of Norris, with Piastri four-tenths further back in third – both McLarens ahead of Perez’s Red Bull.
Times were coming in thick-and-fast when the session was red-flagged due to a heavy crash for the under-pressure Sargeant coming out of the final corner, replays showing him losing control, sliding through the gravel and slamming into the barriers.
After marshals removed Sargeant’s heavily-damaged car from the track, the action resumed and drivers who missed out on laps – the two Ferraris not getting to the line in time and Hulkenberg, Gasly and Albon all having times deleted over track limits – set about getting their names on the board.
Moments later, it was revealed that Leclerc, Zhou and Bottas were all being looked at for potentially failing to follow the Race Director’s instructions regarding maximum lap time, adding another layer of jeopardy to the session – the Monegasque provisionally rising to third, with team mate Sainz going fifth.
Verstappen and Norris refrained from another run in the closing stages given their strong initial efforts, remaining P1 and P2 as the chequered flag dropped, with Leclerc holding P3, Lawson impressively rising to P4 and Piastri rounding out the top five.
Sainz’s time was good enough for sixth, from Perez, Tsunoda and Mercedes pair Russell and Hamilton, as the sole remaining Williams of Albon jumped out of the drop zone to split Alpine pair Gasly and Ocon in 12th position.
Alonso and Magnussen were the final drivers to reach Q2 in P14 and P15 respectively, meaning Bottas, Stroll, Hulkenberg and Zhou all dropped out, the latter losing his final lap time over track limits at Degner 2 and also complaining of traffic in the form of an AlphaTauri.
Sargeant was the fifth and final driver to be eliminated, having watched the rest of the session from the sidelines after his accident that leaves the Williams mechanics with plenty of work to do overnight ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Knocked out: Bottas, Stroll, Hulkenberg, Zhou, Sargeant
Q2 – Leclerc in P1 but Verstappen and the McLarens save tyres
After a short break, the qualifying action resumed and Verstappen continued where he left off with another rapid first lap of 1m 29.964s, only marginally slower than his Q1 benchmark despite running used softs, with the McLarens close behind once more – Piastri this time ahead of Norris.
With Perez fourth from Tsunoda, the two Ferraris, the two Mercedes cars and Lawson, the provisional drop zone featured Alonso, the Alpines, Albon and Magnussen, with Gasly reporting that he could “feel something between my feet in the cockpit”.
Verstappen, Piastri and Norris all remained in the pits and saved some soft tyres while the rest of the field pushed for improvements, bringing a new pace-setting time from Leclerc on a 1m 29.940s, as Perez rose to P3 behind his team mate, Hamilton climbed to P4 and Sainz moved up to P5.
Piastri ended sixth from Tsunoda, Russell and Norris, with Alonso grabbing the final Q3 spot at the expense of Lawson – less than half a tenth of a second separating the pair after they completed their final laps.
Joining Lawson in the drop zone were the two Alpine machines of Gasly and Ocon, split by the Williams of Albon in positions 12 to 14, while Magnussen rounded out the Q2 runners with a run to 15th in his Haas.
Knocked out: Lawson, Gasly, Albon, Ocon, Magnussen
Q3 – Verstappen unleashes even more pace to take a commanding pole
It was more of the same at the start of the pole shootout as Verstappen delivered an eye-catching lap of 1m 29.012s to kick off Q3, some half a second clear of Piastri and Norris, followed by Perez, Hamilton and Tsunoda, with Russell, Alonso and the Ferraris running out of sync – and going for just one run – after using up more soft tyres.
As the final laps came in, Verstappen made his already impressive P1 time even more impressive as he dipped below the 1m 29s barrier and fired in a 1m28.877s, well and truly putting pole position out of reach of the chasing McLaren pair.
Despite their best efforts, Piastri and Norris could not improve as they crossed the line, but P2 and P3 nonetheless marked a stellar return for McLaren, ahead of Leclerc’s Ferrari and the second Red Bull of Perez, who was almost a second slower than team mate Verstappen.
Sainz, pole-sitter for the last two races at Monza and Marina Bay, this time rounded out the top six places, as Mercedes made do with seventh and eighth – Hamilton getting the edge on Russell – after their challenging start to the weekend.
Tsunoda wound up ninth, adding to the celebrations of his contract renewal, with Alonso the slowest of the drivers to reach Q3 but at least ensuring that Aston Martin were represented in the final qualifying phase.
“It’s been an incredible weekend so far, especially in qualifying, where you can really push it to the limit, it felt really, really nice,” said pole-sitter Verstappen. “We had a bad weekend in Singapore. I already felt from the preparation we had that this was going to be a good track, but you never really know how good it’s going to be. From lap one it’s been really, really nice. Of course, you try to find little improvements here and there, and I think we did that. To be on pole here is fantastic.”
The 2023 Japanese Grand Prix is set to begin at 1400 local time on Sunday. Head to the RACE HUB to find out how you can catch the action from Suzuka.