Japanese Grand Prix 2024: ‘Max Verstappen returns to power, but are Mercedes blossoming?’

Home » Japanese Grand Prix 2024: ‘Max Verstappen returns to power, but are Mercedes blossoming?’

Moving the Japanese Grand Prix from autumn to April for the first time has changed the backdrop, now painted with the country’s famous cherry blossom, but otherwise it has been very much business as usual at Suzuka this weekend.

The shift in date for this race is an ambition finally realised for Formula 1’s owner Liberty Media, which felt it was an odd decision to time a grand prix for the middle of typhoon season, especially when the country in question had an obvious other time of the year to hold it.

This was the first time F1 has managed to convince Honda, which owns Suzuka, to move the race, and the sakura did not disappoint. As Max Verstappen said: “It looks nicer with the cherry blossoms and it’s nice for the pictures.”

The television directors were doing everything they could to include the delicate pink and white flowers in every possible shot. That could hardly distract, though, from the reality of the current era of F1.

Two weeks after a losing a race for the first time since mid-September last year, Verstappen is on pole position again at Suzuka, his second favourite track after Spa-Francorchamps, and looking unbeatable as ever.

His margin over Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez was smaller than might have been expected at just 0.066 seconds, but don’t be fooled. Verstappen is as hot a favourite for Sunday’s race as he has ever been.

It took a mechanic failing to do up the bolts on a rear brake caliper after qualifying to stop Verstappen winning in Australia two weeks ago. And it looks as if it would require similar misfortune to stand in his way again on Sunday.

Why the smaller gap?

Verstappen had been 0.356 seconds on average quicker than Perez in qualifying over the first three races of this season, so in some ways it is a surprise to see the Mexican so close to the three-time champion on a track renowned as arguably F1’s greatest challenge for drivers.

The reduced margin is a function of Pirelli’s tyres. Suzuka provides a particular challenge for a tyre that suffers from overheating at the most mundane circuits. Add together long-duration, high-speed corners and a rough asphalt surface and the tyres are overheating even on a qualifying lap.

All the drivers talked about having to manage them around the 3.6 miles, and that puts an artificial ceiling on a driver’s performance – he can only go as fast as the thermal capacity of the tyres will allow.

Verstappen said: “Overall, we had very good pace, it was just trying to do the best lap you could. I started to lose time from Turn 13 onwards, so it’s very sensitive around here with the tyres.

“As soon as you push maybe a bit too hard in sector one, you run out of tyres at the end, and that’s what happened to me in my final lap. So that’s why I didn’t really improve a lot.

“Also, my last chicane, because the front tyres were giving up, I didn’t hit the kerb how it should have been. Let’s say that wasn’t ideal, but it was still good enough.”

This characteristic also limits the tyre’s performance in the race, but Verstappen’s delicacy of touch and sensitivity there should allow him to extend his advantage over Perez. A force of nature, he will certainly not be in any mood to entertain a challenge from a driver he considers his inferior.

Can anyone challenge Red Bull?

Verstappen was making noises after qualifying about concerns over his race pace.

“The whole weekend over one lap we have been very decent,” he said. “So far I haven’t been happy with my long runs. The pace wasn’t what I would have liked.

“So it’s a bit of a question mark because, looking at the long runs – especially Ferrari – they look very comfortable. Maybe they were not so quick over one lap today, but they were definitely fast in the long run. So we’ll have to wait and see how that will evolve in the race.

“We made a few changes after third practice, which hopefully will work. I hope we have improved the car compared to P3, otherwise it is going to be a difficult race for us.”

His rivals were not convinced. Lando Norris, in third place on the grid in the McLaren, spoke for everyone when he said: “Realistically, we’re still too far away to challenge them. They’re too quick for us. Yes, we are quicker (relatively) in quali, but in the race, normally, they always pull away a bit more.”

With the Red Bulls already occupying the positions in which they are expected to finish the race, it is the fight between Norris and those immediately behind him that is expected to provide the major entertainment.

Norris was comfortably quicker than Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari in fourth place over one lap, but the same may not be the case over a longer distance.

Behind Sainz, Fernando Alonso impressed in the upgraded Aston Martin, and said he felt his pace was “unexpected” in a session with which he declared himself “happy and proud”. But he is worried about dropping back from his lofty qualifying position as the car’s true pace reveals itself in the race.

“Looking back at the first three races, we are strong in qualifying and not so in races,” said Alonso. “If we get overtaken by Mercedes, I guess this is normal and we fall back to our position.”

Behind them are McLaren’s Oscar Piastri and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, both of whom Sainz feels will be “in the fight”.

Chinks of light for Mercedes?

For Hamilton, seventh place and 0.569secs from pole is nothing to shout about in the context of Mercedes’ achievements or ambitions. But it says something about the place to which the most successful F1 team and driver have fallen that it counted as progress for the seven-time champion.

That’s not just in terms of the fact Hamilton out-qualified team-mate George Russell for the first time this year, but also that it is a step forward for Mercedes compared to last season.

Hamilton qualified seventh in Japan six and a half months ago, too, but then he was more than a second from pole and driving a car that felt like it was going to spit him off the track every time he turned the wheel.

This time – on a track that exposes the Mercedes’ single biggest flaw, its lack of pace in high-speed corners – Hamilton almost enjoyed himself. Not that qualifying so low down will ever be fun for a driver such as him.

“It’s been a night and day different weekend so far in terms of how comfortable I felt in the car,” said Hamilton.

“We did a really good job of analysis back at the factory to try to understand how we can get the car in a sweeter spot. The car has been much nicer to drive this weekend and particularly at a track like this where you need a nice balance, this is the nicest it’s been for three years.

“I’m not fighting for a championship, just trying to get the best out of the car. I am happier with a cleaner qualifying session – and a car I feel I can lean on more and that’s a real positive.

“The car felt good. There is not much more left. I pretty much got everything out the car. We just need to add performance to it.”

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