[What we learned from Friday practice at the F1 Japanese GP
Max Verstappen’s headline times in both of Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions at the Japanese Grand Prix proved that Red Bull’s misfortune in Singapore was a mere blip.
The championship leader atoned for a difficult weekend at the Marina Bay Circuit last time out by stamping his authority on FP1, capturing a 1m31.647s to sit above Singapore winner Carlos Sainz by 0.6s as Ferrari continued its recent resurgence with the runner-up spot in the noon-time session.
He proceeded to claim FP2 over the other Ferrari in the afternoon, outpacing Charles Leclerc by the smaller margin of 0.3s with a 1m30.688s while Lando Norris sat in the top three of both sessions to demonstrate McLaren’s credentials as a podium contender at Suzuka.
Verstappen’s efforts were in stark contrast to those of his team-mate Sergio Perez, who languished down the order relative to his team-mate having been more than a second behind in both sessions.
The story of the day
Lewis Hamilton had predicted that Red Bull would be strong before any of the cars had turned a wheel, suggesting Verstappen should win Sunday’s race by over 30 seconds and lauded the RB19’s characteristics around a circuit such as Suzuka. The seven-time champion’s early assessment appears to have been proven correct, owing to Verstappen’s evident advantage through the first practice sessions.
Verstappen fitted the softs at the end of FP1 to fly to the top of the charts and then picked up from where he left off at the start of FP2 to hit the top with a new set of soft tyres. Although his first run of FP2 was eclipsed by Norris and then Leclerc, Verstappen hit back after the opening half-hour to clock the first time in the 1m30s of the weekend prior to the teams’ long-run simulations that usually close out the second practice session.
At the close of that session both Ferraris were classified in the top four, as Leclerc’s earlier table-topper was good enough for second while Sainz fell just over two tenths short of his team-mate. Norris split the two Ferraris, having found stronger pace in the first sector relative to the two SF-23s in his McLaren. Although the next best relative to Verstappen in the opening sector, Norris’s time in the first split was still 0.3s down on the Red Bull driver.
Leclerc was Verstappen’s nearest challenger on Friday, as Ferrari appeared to maintain its recent surge
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
McLaren’s biggest weakness was in the slower corners, particularly on the entry to the hairpin and on the exit of the Casio Triangle. Although Leclerc briefly lost time in the hairpin as well, a slower entry offered the Ferrari driver a faster exit, which allowed him to gather more momentum on the run to the Spoon curve and reverse the delta to the McLaren.
George Russell was fifth fastest to give Mercedes a glimmer of hope amid a bruising pair of practice sessions; the team had struggled during the opening practice session having exclusively explored the harder sets of tyre on a track that was initially reticent to deliver the expected grip at the start. The drivers were marginally happier in second practice having been granted use of the softs, although Hamilton spent the day dismayed at the lack of rear grip present in Mercedes’ early set-ups.
Perez struggled throughout practice for balance with his Red Bull RB19
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Although data shown to Motorsport.com has shown a high level of tyre degradation over the practice sessions, indications are that the race will be run to a two-stop – although Russell suggested that the amount of sliding he experienced on the abrasive track surface moves the race “closer to a three-stop at the moment”.
Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin shaded Russell by just over a tenth; the AMR23 lacked the balance of its competitors through the high-load Degner curves and was slower on the entry and mid-corner phases at the Casio Triangle – although the Spaniard’s exit was marginally stronger compared to the cars ahead which helped to reduce the gap.
Assessing overall race pace has been made far more difficult by the use of the prototype C2 tyre, which Pirelli stated after Friday’s sessions was “not delivering the potential for improvement in terms of the grip we wanted to achieve”. Furthermore, Norris, Russell, and Alonso all conducted their long runs on the soft-compound tyre, which is not expected to feature in the race owing to the surplus of degradation experienced.
This is understood to be a result of teams aiming to save tyre sets for the rest of the weekend, owing to the two-stop forecast for the weekend. The notable degradation of the softs over those longer runs also makes it much harder to compare which of the teams will come out on top in the battle behind Verstappen, although Leclerc’s overall average of 1m38.190s on the mediums across his representative long-run times can be compared to Perez’s 1m38.521s – although the Monegasque logged three fewer laps overall.
The chasm between Red Bull’s drivers
On single-lap pace, Perez was 1.022s away from Verstappen’s best lap of FP2, with two-thirds of that disadvantage having been accrued in the first sector. The Mexican complained of balance issues throughout, best exemplified by his need to briefly stamp on the brakes in the middle of Turn 5 amid the S curves to settle the car. Verstappen was on the brakes for a smidgen longer for the Dunlop Curve but rode the accelerator before pulling off the brake pedal to maintain his momentum through the long left-hander. In the next phase, Verstappen had the balance to minimise his lift on the throttle to carry more speed towards the Degners.
Aside from Perez’s problems for Red Bull, the familiar pecking order was restored in Japan
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
While Perez was quicker in the middle of the second Degner, he nonetheless lost two-tenths to Verstappen as the Dutchman claimed greater traction out of the corner. Verstappen’s faster entry into the hairpin creates a spike in their delta but, like the fortunes of Leclerc and Norris, the faster egress from a slower entry helped cut the gap through the run to Spoon. Here, Perez braked slightly later but depressed the pedal for longer, while Verstappen maintained a more consistent speed through the double-left before the ascent to 130R.
Neither driver blinked on the throttle through the high-speed turn, and Verstappen was more easier to slow the car down for the right-left Casio Triangle before completing his lap. Regardless, he carried more speed through the chicane, which took the gap between the Red Bull drivers to over a second as Perez was at full-throttle far later.
Despite Perez’s balance woes, which sapped his confidence on the throttle throughout the lap, he was nonetheless adamant that this offered the team direction in its overnight set-up choices.
“It’s really weird in Suzuka, it is one of the best tracks in the world to drive but this year, if feels like the tarmac has really broken up and the cars are sliding on top of the surface” George Russell
What they said
Verstappen: “Yeah, it felt really good today. From lap one, the car was enjoyable to drive again. And yeah, it seems like we had a strong day. On short runs, long runs… there’s a lot of degradation on this track, so it will be quite tough on tyres in the race. But yeah, so far we had a good start to the weekend. It looks like it’s all a bit tight behind me, Ferrari and McLaren are close. So we’ll have a look. But I think at the end of the day, we just focus on ourselves and try to optimise our performance. And then if we do that, then I’m confident that we can fight for pole.”
Leclerc: “We seem to be slightly closer to our competitors than expected, so it was quite a positive day overall. On my side, we tried out a few different things on the car to make me a bit more comfortable, which was good. I’m looking forward to confirming that feeling tomorrow.”
Russell: “It was a half-reasonable day, to be honest. Red Bull are back to the normal ways, which I don’t think is a major surprise. For many, they seem very, very quick. We’re not too far from P2. I think there are two-tenths in it. So it’s going to be a good fight between Ferrari and Lando. But also, you’ve got cars like Alex is up there as you often see, in qualifying. There seems to be a huge amount of tyre degradation. It’s really weird in Suzuka, it is one of the best tracks in the world to drive but this year, it feels like the tarmac has really broken up and the cars are sliding on top of the surface. So it’s given a bit of a strange feeling to all the drivers out there and that’s what’s contributing towards that tyre degradation.”
Can anyone take the fight to Verstappen and Red Bull at Suzuka?
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images