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IT'S RACE WEEK: 5 storylines we're excited about ahead of the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix

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Chris Medland
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Who would have thought that three races into the season there would be just four points between the top two teams, and 11 points between the top four drivers? The last race in Australia provided lots of drama, and plenty to talk about heading to Suzuka...

Ferrari’s threat to Red Bull

I’m not saying I’m a genius or anything, but in ‘It's Race Week’ ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, we had a section on ‘Ferrari closing in on Red Bull’ and how the Scuderia were now in a position to put pressure on at certain tracks after making a step forward compared to this time last season.

READ MORE: A power move, an Indiba machine and Band of Brothers – Sainz's extraordinary 16 days that culminated in his Melbourne victory

What followed was a Ferrari one-two that I don’t think anyone was expecting, but it did show how they are now close enough to take full advantage of any opportunities when the circuit and conditions suit, and the race pace looked so strong that there’s every chance Ferrari would have won even without Max Verstappen’s retirement.

Red Bull have to remain clear favourites given their advantage on other tracks and general form, but as pointed out above, we head to Suzuka with any one of the Ferrari or Red Bull drivers holding a real chance of taking the championship lead, and Ferrari so close to doing so in the constructors’ standings, too.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 24: Race winner Carlos Sainz of Spain and Ferrari and Second placed

Ferrari will want to show in Japan that they can challenge Red Bull again

Expect a Red Bull response this weekend at a track where they are likely to be particularly strong, but Ferrari will want to show they have got the all-round pace to be the nearest challenger once again.

If anyone is going to disrupt that though, it’s McLaren. Last year they were very competitive at Suzuka and have also started this year in better shape than last. Lando Norris was not far off Carlos Sainz in Melbourne and felt he should have finished second, so there are multiple threats emerging if Red Bull don’t get everything right.

JOLYON PALMER’S ANALYSIS: Did Alonso cause Russell’s crash in Melbourne – and was his penalty fair?

Fernando Alonso’s penalty

Now this is a topic that is likely to dominate Thursday’s media sessions when the paddock reconvenes in Japan.

George Russell’s dramatic crash at the end of the race in Melbourne triggered an investigation into the way Fernando Alonso had driven on the approach to Turn 6, as he looked to keep the Mercedes behind him.

The stewards ultimately decided to give Alonso a penalty for driving in a “potentially dangerous” manner, after lifting off the brakes far earlier than usual. Alonso himself admitted in the stewards’ room that he “got it slightly wrong” as he had to accelerate again towards the corner, but when the drive-through penalty was handed out – converted into 20 seconds of race time – he stated his surprise.

Each of the 20 drivers on the grid are likely to have their own opinions on whether the move was on the acceptable side of defending or went a bit too far, and whether Russell could have reacted differently or not.

TOPSHOT - Mercedes' British driver George Russell goes off the track behind Aston Martin's Spanish

Alonso's penalty, following Russell's crash in Australia, is likely to be a key topic of conversation during media sessions in Japan

The chassis situation at Williams

Melbourne was a particularly challenging weekend for Williams as they left without scoring any points and with just one car having taken part in the race.

Alex Albon’s crash in FP1 damaged one of the two chassis that Williams have built at this stage of the season, with no spare available yet. The unusual scenario left team principal James Vowles with a decision to make, and he duly opted to withdraw Logan Sargeant from the rest of the weekend to allow Albon to compete.

The move nearly paid off as Albon finished within a second of the points in 11th place, but the repercussions are that Williams have been working hard to try and repair the chassis in time for the next round in Japan.

READ MORE: Vowles provides chassis repair update as he assesses chances of Williams competing with two cars in Japan

Given the large distances involved in getting the car back to the team’s Grove headquarters, and then shipped again on time to Suzuka, there was just under a week of time available to carry out the work at the factory.

Vowles has issued an update that suggests the repair is going well and the team should be fine to run two cars in Japan, but it looks like there won’t be a spare available once again so the pressure will remain on the two drivers to keep it clean throughout the weekend.

Sargeant’s reaction will also be worth watching, as he tries to respond to the disappointment once he gets back in the car on Friday, at a track where he was showing good pace last season but then crashed in Q1. On that occasion, Williams did have a spare chassis, and needed to use it.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 22: Logan Sargeant of United States driving the Williams FW45 on track

Logan Sargeant will want to respond to the disappointment he experienced in Australia

Tsunoda in fine form

While Sargeant will be hoping for better fortune in Japan than he had last year – and even two weeks ago – one driver targeting a repeat on both counts is Yuki Tsunoda.

The Japanese driver reached Q3 in front of his home fans last time he raced at Suzuka, finishing just outside the points as the then-AlphaTauri team lacked the performance to hold onto a top-10 finish.

READ MORE: Traffic lights, tacos and moustaches – Getting to know the real Yuki Tsunoda

This year, RB are again in and around the points-paying positions, with Tsunoda securing an impressive eighth on the grid in Australia and converting that into seventh place in the race after Alonso’s penalty was handed out.

It’s the sort of form that Tsunoda needs to keep up if he is to put himself into the frame for a potential promotion to Red Bull next year, but after back-to-back Q3 appearances he’s showing signs of getting the most out of his machinery more often than not. If he can continue that run, he’ll send a large portion of the crowd home very happy this weekend.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 23: Yuki Tsunoda of Scuderia Visa Cash App RB during qualifying ahead

Yuki Tsunoda has been in impressive form leading up to his home race

The driver market warming up

Tsunoda still feels like an outside bet for a drive at Red Bull if there is a change of line-up there, with recent comments suggesting there could be a return to the fold on the cards for Sainz.

Christian Horner pointed out the Spaniard’s availability for 2025 after his win in Melbourne, with Sainz the only driver not in a Red Bull to win a race since the end of the 2022 season.

BARRETTO: He’s hot property after his brilliant Melbourne win – but where will Sainz be racing in 2025?

Those stats and Sainz’s remarkable comeback performance after having his appendicitis removed have only served to increase his stock as the driver market begins to heat up, with the potential for early deals to be done given the amount of movement that is possible at the end of this season.

Some teams might want to take a quick decision to try and secure their first-choice drivers, while others might be waiting to see what unfolds in case any big names end up missing out on their preferred seats. There are a lot of plates spinning at the moment up and down the grid.

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