Results from Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions at the Japanese Grand Prix indicate that Red Bull‘s performance issues at the Singapore Grand Prix were simply aberrations. reigning championship leader Max Verstappen bounced back from a challenging weekend at the Marina Bay Circuit, decidedly leading FP1 with a 1m31.647s time, placing him 0.6s ahead of Carlos Sainz, the victor in Singapore. Ferrari also demonstrated its ongoing resurgence, securing the second position in the noon session.
Verstappen continued to showcase his dominance in FP2, outpacing Ferrari‘s Charles Leclerc by 0.3s with a 1m30.688s time. McLaren‘s Lando Norris kept firm in the top three for both sessions, highlighting McLaren‘s potential as a podium contender at Suzuka. Sergio Perez, Verstappen’s team-mate at Red Bull, however, struggled in comparison, trailing more than a second behind in both sessions.
Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton had anticipated Red Bull‘s strong performance. He noted that Verstappen should triumph at Sunday’s race by over 30 seconds and praised the RB19‘s adaptability to circuits like Suzuka. His predictions seem validated by Verstappen’s upper hand through the initial practice sessions. Verstappen utilized soft tyres during the final stretch of FP1 to surge to the top and remained there at the outset of FP2 with a fresh pair of softs.
George Russell granted Mercedes a beacon of possibilities with the fifth-fastest time amidst a tough pair of practice sessions. The Mercedes team faced issues during the first practice session, struggling with harder tyre sets on a track initially resistant to providing expected grip levels. The drivers were notably more content during the second practice, following the introduction of soft tyres. Still, Hamilton expressed disappointment at the lack of rear grip evident in Mercedes’ initial setups.
Despite evidence of substantial tyre degradation over the practice sessions, the race is likely to be a two-stop. Russell, however, mentioned that the considerable sliding experienced on the abrasive track surface almost pushed the race towards a three-stop.
The AMR23 of Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin failed to match the balance of counterparts through the Degner curves and was a tad slower at the entry and mid-corner phases of the Casio Triangle. However, Alonso’s relatively stronger exit reduced the gap. The use of the prototype C2 tyre has complicated overall race pace assessment, as Pirelli admitted to the tyre’s inability to deliver a grip improvement.
Despite a glaring gap between Red Bull‘s driving duo, Perez seemed confident that this gave the team a direction for their overnight setup choices. In terms of single-lap pace, Perez fell 1.022s behind Verstappen’s best lap of FP2. He complained of balance problems throughout the session.
Feeling positive about their performance, Verstappen, Leclerc, and Russell made their respective comments. Verstappen found the car delightful to drive and sensed a strong start to the weekend. Leclerc noted that they were comparatively closer to their competitors, and Russell felt that the day went half reasonably well. He also expressed his concern about the deteriorating quality of the track.