In an awe-inspiring performance, Dutch superstar, Max Verstappen, posted a stunning 1m30.688s lap-time, setting the record in the process and rocketing to the top of the timing board. This came after he was briefly displaced from the top position following his initial run on soft tyres, while his fellow leading drivers reserved their first run on soft tyres for later.
Verstappen made the first move, clocking a respectable 1m31.377s in his first run. This daring strategy saw him switching to soft tyres earlier than most others, while his counterparts chose to assess Pirelli‘s prototype tyre compound during the initial part of the session.
However, Verstappen’s early success was short-lived, as Lando Norris shook things up by switching to red-walled tyres and clocking 1m31.152s. The impressive performance highlighted McLaren‘s strong grasp of the technical and winding Suzuka course.
The console saw further reshuffling when Leclerc overtook Norris with a 1m31.008s time, in a clear bid to help Ferrari maintain its lead over other teams in the competitive chase for second in the constructors’ championship from Singapore. Carlos Sainz, the victor from the previous weekend, continued to capitalise on Ferrari‘s momentum by securing the third spot, right behind Norris.
Verstappen, however, was not to be outdone. Widely recognised for a potential comeback in the Japanese GP weekend, Verstappen confirmed the speculations by becoming the first to break the 1m31s barrier, facilitating Red Bull to pull ahead by a fraction over three-tenths from Leclerc’s earlier best.
Preceding the traditional long-run simulations, during which the teams analyse tyre performance and degradation for Sunday’s main event, Verstappen’s time remained unbeatable. Even in the final 20 crucial minutes, Verstappen held his ground against Leclerc, ending the session in a favourable position.
The results were sealed when Pierre Gasly suffered a crash with barely two minutes remaining in the clock, after losing control of his car at Turn 9, subsequently leading to a collision against the wall just before the overpass. Gasly, representing Alpine, had exited the second Degner corner at excessive speed, resulting in a lock-up which landed him across the gravel.
Despite Verstappen’s strong performance, Norris secured the third position with Sainz closely settling for the fourth. Meanwhile, George Russell representing Mercedes landed fifth, despite apparent struggles with massive degradation as he continued to accrue mileage on the soft tyre.
Fernando Alonso clinched the sixth position, edging past Williams‘ Alex Albon, who garnered attention with a time a tenth ahead of Oscar Piastri. Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas rounded off the top 10, with Bottas narrowly ahead of Lance Stroll‘s best lap, marking the latter’s re-entry after missing the Singapore race.
Esteban Ocon, representing Alpine, found himself in the 12th slot, taking precedence over Nico Hulkenberg and a seemingly disoriented Lewis Hamilton. Following this, Liam Lawson snagged the 15th position, outperforming Zhou Guanyu, Kevin Magnussen, and his own teammate, Yuki Tsunoda.
Gasly ended at the disappointing 19th position, while Logan Sargeant, who logged the best final sector, found himself at the bottom of the field.