Race Weekend Central

F1 Review: Max Verstappen Back on Top as Red Bull Clinch Constructors’ Title

Max Verstappen returned to form in Japan and true to form, dominated the race from start to finish to handily win the Lenovo Japanese Grand Prix while clinching Red Bull’s second consecutive constructors’ championship.

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Lando Norris finished a distant second and teammate Oscar Piastri made it a double podium for McLaren with a third. Charles Leclerc finished fourth with teammate Carlos Sainz in sixth splitting the Mercedes teammates of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, in fifth and seventh, respectively.

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso’s up and down day left him in eight, the Alpines of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly closing out the points-paying positions.

“Unbelievable weekend. To win here was great,” Verstappen said. “The most important thing was to win the constructors. Very proud for everyone working at the track and at the factory. We are having an incredible year.”

In the driver standings, Verstappen hit the 400 mark and his lead over Sergio Perez, whose wild day ended in a DNF in 19th, is now 400 to 223. The Dutchman can clinch the drivers’ championship as soon as the sprint race in Qatar, where a finish of sixth or better will secure the crown for Verstappen. Hamilton leads Alonso 190 to 174 for third.

In the constructor standings, Red Bull leads Mercedes 623 to 305, with Ferrari 20 points back in third.

The Race

Verstappen held off the two McLarens at lights out, with Norris making a strong bid for the lead into turn 1, overtaking his teammate for second. Perez pushed Hamilton wide into turn 1 and the two made contact, while further back Ocon, Alex Albon, Valterri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu came together, leaving a trail of debris. Alonso took advantage of the chaos to move up from 10th to sixth. The safety car made an appearance soon after.

Perez pitted for a new front wing, dropping to 18th in the order, while Hamilton’s team noted minor front-wing damage from the contact. Zhou also came in for a new front wing. 

The safety car was in at the end of lap 4 and Verstappen made a quick restart and was quickly over a second ahead of Norris, who was in turn over a second ahead of Piastri. The Mercedes of Russell and Hamilton exchanged places twice on lap 6, with Hamilton coming out in front in the end.

Bottas was the first of several retirements of the day, a few laps after Logan Sargeant locked up his brakes and collected Bottas’ Alfa, sending it slightly off the ground and into a 540-degree spin into the gravel.

Perez’s charge from 18th was progressing, but was struck a blow when stewards stuck him with a five-second safety car infringement penalty. Perez was in 13th on lap 12 and making progress towards the points position despite the looming penalty. 

Verstappen was over four seconds clear of Norris on lap 12 and was cruising with the memory of his disappointing Singapore weekend apparently clear of his mind.  Further back, Perez clipped Kevin Magnussen during an impatient and ill-advised attempt to pass the Haas, spinning Magnussen and damaging Perez’s second wing.

Perez pitted for his third front wing, but retired soon after, before stewards ultimately issued him another five-second penalty.

The incident brought out a virtual safety car and Piastri took advantage and pitted, gaining an advantage on the cars that stayed out.

Verstappen pitted on lap 17 for medium tires, surrendering the lead to Norris and dropping to fifth in the order, ahead of Piastri. Norris and Leclerc pitted a lap later, with Norris choosing hard tires and Leclerc mediums.

Norris came out well behind Piastri, as Piastri’s pit under the VSC paid dividends. Sainz dove in a lap later for medium tires. Russell briefly was in the lead before Verstappen blew past him on lap 18 to retake the lead and resumed building a sizable lead.

Alonso complained vehemently that his team had “thrown him to the lions” with their early pit stop, and soon after, ordered his team to “think of something” as the Spaniard was losing more places. 

Verstappen soon upped his lead to over four seconds over Russell, who was instructed to “consider Plan B” by his team. Russell had yet to pit, so it was not quite evident exactly what Russell’s strategy was, although the one-stop strategy seemed to be in play. 

Verstappen was almost 10 seconds up on Russell by lap 24 and the McLarens were soon on the Mercedes’ tail. Russell pitted on lap 25 for hard tires, with hopes he could preserve those tires for 28 laps and challenge the McLarens for a spot on the podium.

Norris was faster than Piastri and Piastri conceded the position on lap 27, allowing Norris to guard against Russell’s strategy, which at this point was obviously a one-stopper.

The Williams of Sargeant and Albon retired in the span of two laps, becoming the fourth and fifth cars to retire.

Verstappen was well on his way to the victory, smartly managing his medium tires to a 14-second lead by lap 31. Meanwhile, Red Bull had apparently decided to unretire Perez and send him back out, with the purpose of serving his five-second penalty so it wouldn’t carry over as a grid penalty in the next race at Qatar.

Or at least that’s what Red Bull was telling us. Perez sat in his cockpit for several laps as Red Bull waited for the right moment to send him back out.

The order on lap 33 was Verstappen, Norris, Piastri, Leclerc, Sainz, Hamilton, Russell, Gasly, Alonso and Ocon. 

Leclerc pitted on lap 35, joined by Hamilton, both for hard tires. Piastri pitted for hards a lap later, and Norris was in a lap later for hard tires, conceding second to Sainz and third to Russell. Norris came out just a few seconds behind Russell, who was a sitting duck on much older hard tires. Norris was past Russell into third a lap later and assumed second when Sainz pitted on lap 39.  

Verstappen made his final stop on lap 38 for hard tires, maintaining a solid lead over Sainz. Verstappen and Norris appeared to have their spots on the podium reserved, with the final podium position up for grabs, to be determined in the final 14 laps, with Piastri holding the advantage.

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Perez finally returned to the track on lap 40 and came in for a pit stop a lap later to serve his penalty, and another chapter in Perez’s topsy-turvy 2023 season was written. Perez retired from the race for good on lap 42.

Piastri, with his much fresher tires, overtook Russell on lap 42 and likely had third place locked up, unless Leclerc could quickly get by Russell and begin an attack on Piastri. 

Leclerc took the position on lap 45 and was just over three seconds adrift of Piastri. Leclerc, however, was not making up ground on Piastri and had to be more concerned with the Mercedes duo behind him. Hamilton was the fastest Mercedes, but was stuck behind Russell, who was not too keen on giving up the position. Meanwhile, Sainz was hot on Hamilton’s tail. 

Russell was instructed to swap positions and did so on lap 49, albeit not before advising the team that it would make sense to wait until the final lap, which could possibly allow both Mercedes to finish ahead of Sainz. Mercedes ignored Russell’s recommendation and he was soon overtaken by Sainz, leaving Hamilton to defend against the Ferrari, whose tires were four laps fresher. 

Verstappen crossed the finish line over 19 seconds clear of Norris and clinched the constructors’ championship for Red Bull, with a drivers’ championship soon to follow. Norris took his fifth second place of the season, well ahead of Piastri, who earned his first podium finish. 

The Good

There was some exciting early racing between the Mercedes of Russell and Hamilton, with the pair going wheel-to-wheel in a battle on laps 5 and 6, and nearly contact. Although briefly, Mercedes assumed the role played so well by the Ferraris in Monza. That role being the “Let’s see how darn nervous we can make our team by racing each other rather recklessly and almost taking both cars out of the race.”

The Mercedes battle was just one of many in the race, which saw several good battles on the Suzuka circuit, although none involved Verstappen, who quickly removed doubt about the outcome of the race with his expected dominance.

The trophy given to the race winner was no ordinary trophy. The trophy, when kissed by the winning driver, lit up to display the flag of the driver’s country. So, in this case, when kissed by Verstappen, it displayed the flag of the Netherlands. For Lenovo, which created the trophy, it had to be the easiest computer programming job in history: “Let’s just input one driver and one flag, and I think we’ll be all right,” they must have told themselves.

But let’s not kid ourselves: a kiss from Verstappen, practically in all instances, should not display his flag, but the words “Goodbye.”   

The Bad

Good grief. Just when you thought Perez’s season couldn’t get any wackier, it got wackier. It started on Saturday (Sept. 23) when Perez actually made it to Q3 in qualifying. And it continued in Sunday’s race, when he hit at least two cars, needed two front wing replacements, retired twice and was given two five-second penalties.

Perez was all over the place and his 2023 season could also be described as “all over the place,” as his results have ranged from wins to DNFs. Then there’s his 2023 qualifying history, which has been an even wilder ride.      

The Disappointing

Leclerc had to be the most disappointed driver at Suzuka. On lap 14, Leclerc thought he had passed Verstappen when he had, in fact, passed the Red Bull of Perez when Perez entered the pits to retire the car.

Leclerc was under this assumption until the last lap, when he looked at the timing board and saw that he was P4, with Verstappen leading. I know Verstappen showed vulnerability at Singapore, but this is downright delusional on Leclerc’s part. Verstappen may not win every race, but he never retires.  

So Leclerc and his team went 30 or so laps without a clear understanding between the two as to where exactly Leclerc stood in the order? It makes so much sense, because 1) it involves Ferrari and 2) it involves communication.

The Driver

For all those who doubted Red Bull, Verstappen made them look foolish with a win that was never in doubt, and only close for a fleeting second on the start. At his best, Verstappen is basically invincible. At his worst, he can still win races, if given the car he’s used to.

And kudos to Verstappen for his G-rated reply to those who thought his slip-up in Singapore was the result of an FIA technical directive. Verstappen told them to “go suck an egg.” Such a succinct, universally understood and cutting insult that even young admirers of Verstappen can repeat and not be admonished.  

The Results (Lenovo Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka Circuit)

11Max VerstappenRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT531:30:58.42126
24Lando NorrisMCLAREN MERCEDES53+19.387s18
381Oscar PiastriMCLAREN MERCEDES53+36.494s15
416Charles LeclercFERRARI53+43.998s12
544Lewis HamiltonMERCEDES53+49.376s10
655Carlos SainzFERRARI53+50.221s8
763George RussellMERCEDES53+57.659s6
814Fernando AlonsoASTON MARTIN ARAMCO MERCEDES53+74.725s4
931Esteban OconALPINE RENAULT53+79.678s2
1010Pierre GaslyALPINE RENAULT53+83.155s1
1140Liam LawsonALPHATAURI HONDA RBPT52+1 lap0
1222Yuki TsunodaALPHATAURI HONDA RBPT52+1 lap0
1324Zhou GuanyuALFA ROMEO FERRARI52+1 lap0
1427Nico HulkenbergHAAS FERRARI52+1 lap0
1520Kevin MagnussenHAAS FERRARI52+1 lap0

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