What made last Sunday’s pulsating Singapore Grand Prix so captivating was a genuine battle at the front: a battle for first, from lights out to the chequered flag. But it was only made possible by a clanger of a weekend from runaway constructors leaders Red Bull, whose perfect win-streak in 2023 came to an abrupt end amid the tight twists and turns of the city-state. Yet briskly onto Japan, a more conventional racetrack, would the status quo be restored?
It certainly seems so. Judging by initial signs from Friday practice at Suzuka – a driver-favourite on the calendar due to its heart-shredding high-speed corners – it would be a major shock if Max Verstappen did not claim his 11th win in 12 races come Sunday. The flying Dutchman, closing in on the home-straight in his irrepressible march to a hat-trick of world titles, was fastest in both free practice sessions. And by some distance too.
Six-tenths of a second in FP1, narrowed down to three-tenths by FP2. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Lando Norris, in consistency unexpected from practice, were the next-best in both sessions.
“It felt really good today,” said Verstappen, back to his customary satisfied self after the anomaly of Singapore. “From lap one, the car was really enjoyable to drive again. It seems we had a strong day on short runs and long runs. So far, we have a good start to the weekend.
“It looks tight behind me between Ferrari and McLaren, they’re close. But we just focus on ourselves, try to optimise our performance and if we do that, then I’m confident we’ll fight for pole.”
Last year’s frenetic Suzuka race in the rain, memorable for Pierre Gasly’s close shave with a repair vehicle, saw Verstappen crowned a two-time champion following a dramatic end with Leclerc handed an position-changing penalty. For so long, it seemed Suzuka would be the venue for his crowning glory again in 2023. But all Singapore did was delay the inevitable by a race: that moment is likely to come amid the sprint weekend in Qatar at the start of October.
Norris, still chasing his first win after recording a ninth Formula 1 podium last week, struggled to hide his deflation at realising Christian Horner’s team were back in their usual flow.
“I doubt it’s going to be pole [for us], Red Bull is normal Red Bull,” the Brit said. “The pace was there… but the car feels pretty all over the place. A handful.
“I don’t think we’re far away. Challenging for pole is a big task and probably a bit too far – challenging Mercedes, Ferrari and Astons has to be our battle for tomorrow.”
Mind you, Mercedes might count themselves fortunate to be included in that list, given their performance on Friday. Neither driver was in the top-10 in first practice, while Lewis Hamilton only managed a best-result of 14th in FP2.
“It was a very challenging day for us out there,” said the seven-time world champion and five-time winner in Japan.
“I had a lack of confidence in the car and that contributed to our struggles. It was difficult to find the right balance and we didn’t manage to get on top of it by the end of FP2. The tyres were overheating and that left us quite far off the top of the timing sheets.
“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do tonight to pick up the performance. I do believe we can make improvements though. We have had similar Friday’s this season and come back stronger on Saturday. We will see tomorrow if we have done so again. We will be putting in the effort this evening to give us every chance of getting ourselves higher up the order.”
Higher up the order is certainly obtainable. What is not, it seems, is a major weekend challenge to Verstappen. Last week was nothing but a blip. Stranger things have happened – and the last two pole positions have been claimed by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz – but even on race simulations on Friday, the Red Bull was about a second-a-lap quicker on average than anyone else.
Following qualifying on Saturday – bright and early in the UK (7am BST) – the racing on Sunday looks once again likely to be behind the champion-in-waiting.