JAPANESE GP – Max Verstappen bounces back to take pole over half a second ahead of the McLaren’s

Testing & Race Reports

Max Verstappen bounced back strongly from Singapore to take pole position by nearly six-tenths of a second for the Japanese Grand Prix. The Dutchman set a 28.877 to take pole ahead of the two McLaren’s with Oscar Piastri getting the first front row start of his career after beating teammate Lando Norris by four hundredths.

Following Singapore, many expected Red Bull to bounce back strongly, and Verstappen did with the largest pole margin at Suzuka in twenty years. The Dutchman looking the favourite for victory once again with his teammate Sergio Perez fifth, eight tenths behind.

Verstappen looked unstoppable, his first lap in Q3 was fast enough for pole but he then improved by a tenth and a half, securing his pole. Piastri then couldn’t manage to improve neither could his teammate Norris on their final laps, allowing Piastri to push him off the front row going four hundredths faster.

Verstappen had topped all three practice sessions to make himself a comfortable favourite for pole position on Saturday. He set out his intentions in qualifying from the off as he was immediately with a 29.878 in Q1 despite a rough ride through the Degner Two corner.

He then again topping Q2 with a 29.964 then his first time in Q3 was a 29.012, which was good enough anyway for pole before he improved by a further tenth increasing his advantage to half a second. Allowing him to equal five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio’s twenty-nine poles.

Red Bull will wrap up a sixth Constructors’ Championship crown on Sunday if they outscore Mercedes by one point and are not outscored themselves by Ferrari by twenty-four points or more.

Piastri and Norris will seek to make life more uncomfortable for Verstappen on Sunday when they line up from second and third on the grid – McLaren’s first top-six start at Suzuka since Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton started there in 2011. Button went on to win that emotional race following the Fukushima nuclear accident following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Piastri underlining why McLaren extended his contract to the end of 2026, a new deal announced on Thursday before the weekend, with his first front row . He went second fastest on his first run but failed to improve on his second, admitting to making mistakes in the second and third sectors after improving in the first.

He said, “It has been a really good weekend for the team so far. We have some upgrades on the car, happy to be second and third. First time I have started on the front row for a while. It will be cool. Only one car to overtake and I will try to make that happen.”

Norris said: “A great job by Oscar today and as usual by Max. I was pretty happy with my laps. It is not easy to put everything together around here. The smallest mistake and it can mean a big amount of lap time.”

Ferrari has taken the last two poles, but Charles Leclerc could only manage fourth half a tenth behind Norris and a tenth ahead of Perez. Perez spilt the two Ferraris, he was a tenth faster than Sainz, but nearly eight-tenths off his teammate Verstappen, and moved into fifth on his final attempt.

However, Leclerc and Sainz only managed a single run Q3 where they were unable to find enough performance to get ahead of the McLarens, or Perez in Sainz’s case. The team’s new floor appears to have helped solve the inconsistencies, that allowed  Leclerc to set it up with more oversteer than it could cope with in recent races, bringing the car back to his normal driving style.

Mercedes has looked to struggle to challenge up front but in Q3 both Hamilton and George Russell fought each other hard, on the final runs Russell had gone fastest. Then Hamilton responded going three tenths faster than his teammate as the two Englishmen continued to be evenly matched on track.

Hamilton out-qualifying Russell in Grand Prix qualifying for the first time since Spa at the end of July, but Mercedes never looked to be fighting for the front three rows.

Yuki Tsunoda had one of the better qualifying’s of the season, he was ninth going two and a half tenths faster than Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard just managed to get through to Q3, managing to maintain his record of being the only driver to make it through to the final part of qualifying after knocking out Liam Lawson.

The Japanese driver started Saturday with the confirmation that he will remain with Alpha Tauri alongside injured Daniel Ricciardo next year, with  Lawson returning to a Red Bull reserve role.

Lawson had a brilliant qualifying as he continues to make the case for a permanent seat in the sport, he had just missed out on Q2 by four hundredths. Lawson narrowly missed out on a second Q3 appearance after being edged out by Alonso in Q2, the Kiwi driver paying the price for using an extra set of soft tyres in the first segment.

Alpha Tauri are bottom of the Constructors’ Championship, but their car has looked a bit more competitive since introducing a raft of updates last time out in Singapore and Tsunoda will start ninth – his best position since Monaco. Lawson, who has impressed for Alpha Tauri as a stand-in for the injured Daniel Ricciardo, he said: “These mistakes are killing me, but it is what it is.”

Along with Pierre Gasly who was just a thousandth behind Lawson, in another competitive qualifying in the midfield. Alex Albon was thirteenth half a tenth ahead of Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and Kevin Magnussen. Albon had gone seventh on his final run but as others improved found himself knocked out finishing thirteenth.

Logan Sargeant has an early exit from qualifying, the Williams driver crashed heavily following a huge snap of oversteer through the final corner. The American brought out the red flag as he  tried to push through it but went off across the grass and gravel into the wall. Sergeant admitted the crash had been caused by “a heavy right foot”.

Once Q1 resumed following a red flag period, a big improvement from Lawson prompted a mad dash at the end with fifteen drivers heading out. Lance Stroll looked to get out of Q1, following his crash in Q1 in Singapore, but the Canadian could only manage seventeenth over a tenth behind Valtteri Bottas.

Bottas was over a tenth faster than Stroll, Alfa Romeo teammate Zhou the Chinese driver a tenth behind Nico Hulkenberg.


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