Max Verstappen, representing Red Bull, made an impressive show in both of Friday’s free practice sessions at the Japanese Grand Prix. He finished the day with a lead of 0.320 seconds above Ferrari‘s Charles Leclerc and almost half a second higher than Lando Norris from team McLaren.
Verstappen’s strong performance in FP1 served as a strong comeback after a less than stellar weekend at the recent Singapore GP, where he had difficulty qualifying for Q3 and ended in the fifth position. This was a minor setback in the otherwise successful 2023 season for Red Bull.
Despite concerns that the past struggles from Singapore might throw a shadow on the team’s performance at Suzuka with its considerably different layout, Red Bull managed to calm nerves with stellar outings on Friday.
“It felt really good today. From lap one the car was enjoyable to drive again,” remarked Verstappen. His enthusiasm towards the vehicle was evident as he noted that it was a strong day for them, with both brief and long runs playing out well. However, he hinted at challenges ahead, adding, “There’s a lot of degradation on this track, so it will be quite tough on tyres in the race. But so far we had a good start to the weekend.”
Prior to the race, Verstappen and George Russell of Mercedes identified McLaren as a potential threat to Red Bull. However, Ferrari also showed signs of stiff competition following their win in Singapore led by Sainz. Verstappen, acknowledging this competition, accepted this challenge stating, “It looks like it’s all a bit tight behind me. Ferrari and McLaren are close, so we’ll have a look.”
Despite the competition, Verstappen laid out a clear game plan. “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.”
Meanwhile, Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez had a more turbulent day ahead of him. His FP1 performance was marred by balance issues which were only slightly resolved in FP2. Perez ended the day ninth, a full second behind Verstappen.
Perez admitted to the issues, sharing, “We had problems with the balance of the car in FP1, we tried to improve it a bit in FP2”. Despite these issues, he was optimistic on understanding the necessary steps to improve, further noting, “Certainly, things are looking a lot better than they were last weekend which is positive.”
Perez is also positive about the upcoming qualifying race, as he stated, “I look forward to qualifying well tomorrow because the degradation seems to be quite high around this place, especially with the hot temperatures we are expecting”. His optimism continues into the weekend as he closed with, “I do believe that we were going to be strong tomorrow and also on Sunday.”