Race Weekend Central

F1 Review: Max Verstappen Regains Mojo, Coasting to Win in Japan

Polesitter Max Verstappen restored order with a dominant win at Suzuka Sunday (April 7th) morning, controlling the race from start to finish to win the MSC Cruises Japanese Grand Prix, well ahead of teammate Sergio Perez. It was Red Bull’s third 1-2 finish of the season. Verstappen also added the fastest lap on lap 50 to give the team maximum points. The victory was Verstappen’s third straight Japanese GP win, matching the accomplishment of Michael Schumacher.

The Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc finished third and fourth, while McLaren’s Lando Norris took fifth, ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso in sixth. The Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton finished seventh and ninth, sandwiching Oscar Piastri in eighth. And RB’s Yuki Tsunoda delighted the home crowd by taking the final point in 10th. 

“It was very nice,” Verstappen said. “I think the critical bit was of course the start, to stay ahead. After that the car just got better and better for me throughout the race.

“Everything just went really well. It couldn’t have been any better.”

In the Drivers’ Championship, Verstappen boosted his lead to 13 points (77-64) now over Perez (Verstappen entered the race leading Leclerc by just four). Leclerc holds third with 59 points.

In the constructors’ standings, Red Bull leads Ferrari 141 to 120, with McLaren a distant third with 69, ahead of Mercedes with 34 points.

The Race

Verstappen aced the start at lights out and was unchallenged into turn 1 as order held at the start. Back in the field, contact between Alex Albon and Daniel Ricciardo at turn 3 sent both into the barriers, resulting in a red flag.   

After a 30-minute delay to repair the barriers and clear the track, green flag racing resumed with another standing start. Verstappen again controlled the start, and by lap’s end, had a near one-second lead over Perez. 

Back in the field, the Alpines of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon made contact. Luckily, both were able to continue their quests to remain on the lead lap.

By lap 6, not much had changed in the top 10, save for Leclerc taking seventh from Hamilton.

Verstappen’s lead was over two seconds by lap 8, aided by a few fastest laps, as well as an error by Perez on lap 6, where he ran wide on the circuit’s Degner 2 curve.

Leclerc began to pressure Piastri around lap 9 and was quickly in DRS range. Behind them, Hamilton and Russell, both on hard tires, were running well and looking to play the strategic long game, buoyed by reports that medium tires on other cars were rapidly degrading.

With Sainz gaining on Norris, McLaren pitted Norris for hard tires on lap 12, while Sainz remained out, indicating that Ferrari intended to stay out much longer. Piastri pitted for hards a lap later and emerged in 12th. 

By lap 13, Verstappen had opened up a commanding four-second lead over Perez, who in turn owned an equally commanding lead over Sainz in third. Also on lap 13, Hamilton volunteered to let the faster Russell through on the final chicane, something practically unheard of in Formula 1. 

One lap later, Zhou Guanyu was forced to retire by a failing gearbox.

There was a promising sign for McLaren on lap 15 when Norris set a fastest lap on his properly-warmed hard tires. That helped Norris come out ahead of Perez and Sainz, who both pitted for medium tires on lap 16. 

Verstappen pitted from first on lap 17 and resumed in second, while Norris got past the much slower Hamilton to take fourth. 

Leclerc assumed the lead, but had yet to pit, and his lead was quickly being gobbled up by the speeding Verstappen, whose Red Bull showed no weaknesses, and more importantly, no stuck brakes.

On lap 20, the Mercedes were struggling with their hard tires and appeared to be going for one stop strategies. With Russell and Hamilton both vulnerable to cars with newer tires, they’d have to limit the damage for 5-7 more laps to have any chance of making their strategy pay off. 

Verstappen easily overtook Leclerc for the lead on lap 21 and a lap later was over two seconds ahead of the Ferrari, and four seconds ahead another lap later. Verstappen looked unstoppable, with no real threat to challenge him.    

Hamilton pitted for another set of hard tires on lap 24 and came back out in ninth, with a long stint ahead of him. 

Perez was stalking Leclerc, who ran wide at Degner 2, allowing Perez to take second place, leaving little doubt that Red Bull would occupy the top two spots on the podium. 

See also
Max Verstappen Gives Hometown Honda the Win at the Japanese Grand Prix

Leclerc and Norris both pitted on lap 27, both for hard tires. Leclerc came out ahead of Russell, while Norris emerged behind the Mercedes. But Norris got past Russell for seventh on lap 28.

The order on lap 29 was Verstappen, Perez, Sainz, Alonso, Piastri, Leclerc, Norris, Russell, and Hamilton, with upcoming pit stops and tire strategies certain to mix things up, excluding the dominant Red Bulls. 

On lap 30, Verstappen was 11 seconds up on Perez, who was six seconds up on Sainz. Another Red Bull 1-2 was highly likely; the real intrigue of the race was finding out who would join them on the podium.

Piastri made his final pit stop on lap 33 to have his McLaren outfitted with a set of hard tires. Perez and Alonso followed suit, pitting a lap later, both for hard tires. Perez came out behind Norris and was quickly right on the McLaren’s tail.

Verstappen was in a lap later and came out in second behind Sainz, who still had to pit. 

Perez easily overtook Norris for fourth, and began his quest to reel in Leclerc. It was quick work, as Perez zoomed by on lap 36.

Sainz pitted for another set of hard tires on lap 37 and came out seventh, looking to attack Hamilton and Russell, both on much older tires. Sainz blasted by Hamilton and Russell pitted, moving Sainz up to fifth, with Norris well ahead in fourth. 

Hamilton abandoned the one stop strategy and pitted on lap 40, this time for mediums. That left Russell and Hamilton in eighth and ninth, and the only two cars in the points on medium tires.

With 10 laps to go, the Red Bull 1-2 was an inevitability, with Norris, in fourth, sandwiched between the two Ferraris of Leclerc, in third, and Sainz, in fifth. Sainz made the pass down the front straight on lap 44. Sainz then targeted Leclerc and the podium, with permission from Ferrari brass that he could battle his teammate for position. It wasn’t much of a battle, as Sainz flew by down the front straight on lap 46. 

With five laps left, the most interesting battle on the track was the Alonso-Piastri-Russell scrap, as about two seconds separated them in the 6-7-8 spots. Piastri and Russell made contact in the final chicane as Russell dove into the corner for a pass. Piastri held on as Alonso did what he does best and made it nearly impossible to pass him. Piastri made a mistake into turn 16, allowing Russell to snatch the position on lap 52. 

Up front, Verstappen crossed the line 13 seconds ahead of Perez, giving the Dutch phenom his third win of the season.

The Good

Is there a driver more dominant than Verstappen? There actually is, and it’s also Verstappen, or at least the version of Verstappen that’s in the car after he fails to win the previous race. When there is just the slightest hint of vulnerability in Verstappen’s apparent veil of invincibility, he likes to slam the door shut on those thoughts. 

And what’s most amazing is he makes it look so easy. Verstappen’s margin of victory in Japan was nearly 13 seconds. I’m convinced Verstappen could double, maybe even triple, that margin if he felt compelled. On what do I base my theory? Simply on Verstappen’s comments over the Red Bull radio on the cool down lap, when he called his race “lovely.” You describe a Sunday drive through the English countryside as “lovely,” not a two-hour race in hot conditions at Suzuka. And much like that drive through the country, you have no concern about who’s behind you.  

I often wonder what Verstappen does in the midst of a race in which he’s dominating and the win is a mere formality. And I’m convinced the answer is that he’s listening to a self-help book on tape titled “How To Combat Boredom.” 

Tsunoda gave the Japanese fans what they came to see: points from their Japanese hero. Tsunoda started a strong weekend by advancing to Q3 on Saturday (April 6th), and backed that up with a strong performance in the race. Already an icon in Japan, Tsunoda is destined to become an international hero because of his talent, his personality, and because he’s just so darn cuddly-looking. 

The Bad

It’s not a race weekend without a Williams driver wrecking a car, whether in qualifying or the actual race. This time, Albon was out on lap 1 after he was clipped by Ricciardo and spun into the tire barrier. Already short a chassis, this likely puts the team in somewhat of a bind heading to the Chinese Grand Prix in two weeks. In their defense, Williams has already shown a keen ability to pick up the pieces and be ready for the next race.  

In addition to Albon’s woes, his Williams comrade Logan Sargeant finished 17th, last among cars still running. To add insult to injury, Sargeant finished behind both Alpine cars, which, this season, is the very definition of embarrassing. Interestingly enough, Sargeant spun late in the race, and was probably saved from serious damage by the gravel trap. Had Sargeant hit the wall, Williams would have really been in a bind.  

And speaking of Alpine, “The Bad” is exactly where you’d expect me to be speaking of Alpine. Ocon and Gasly finished 15th and 16th, respectively, one lap down, which is not in the least bit respectable. To make matters worse, the two made contact on the opening lap, with both cars sustaining damage that compromised performance. 

Alpine hasn’t sniffed the points all season, and the drivers have no confidence in the car, the team, or each other, for that matter. If Alpine expects to be competitive, they have a long way to go. Hitting rock bottom is a much shorter trip. Even though their cars were still running, I consider Alpine as “not classified,” as a legitimate F1 team.

See also
Slipstream Saturdays: What's Eating Alpine?

The Disappointing

With warm temperatures seriously impacting tire degradation, and teams on varying tire strategies, I was hopeful that circumstances, a stuck brake, maybe a timely safety car or two, rogue downpour, and just pure luck would enable a team to challenge Red Bull up front and make this a competitive race. But Red Bull negated all of those possibilities with just pure performance, running away from the field early and leaving all the battles for position behind them. And that’s disappointing.

Also disappointing: the absence of Martin Brundle from the Sky Sports broadcast team. There was still a “Grid Walk,” but it’s just not the same without Brundle, whose search for celebrities and very-to-somewhat important people is often more entertaining than the race itself. 

The Driver

Verstappen’s dominance and Tsunoda’s home country heroics aside, Leclerc drove a brilliant race to finish fourth after starting eighth. Leclerc executed a one-stop strategy that saw him start on medium tires and switch to a hard set on lap 28, which he managed until the end. Leclerc was the only driver who started in the top 10 to significantly improve on his starting position (four places). In fact, excluding Verstappen and Perez, all of the other drivers in the top 10 (except for Leclerc) finished worse than their starting positions.

The Results (MSC Cruises Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka International Racing Course)

POSNODRIVERCARLAPSTIME/RETIREDPTS
11Max VerstappenRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT531:54:23.56626
211Sergio PerezRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT53+12.535s18
355Carlos SainzFERRARI53+20.866s15
416Charles LeclercFERRARI53+26.522s12
54Lando NorrisMCLAREN MERCEDES53+29.700s10
614Fernando AlonsoASTON MARTIN ARAMCO MERCEDES53+44.272s8
763George RussellMERCEDES53+45.951s6
881Oscar PiastriMCLAREN MERCEDES53+47.525s4
944Lewis HamiltonMERCEDES53+48.626s2
1022Yuki TsunodaRB HONDA RBPT52+1 lap1
1127Nico HulkenbergHAAS FERRARI52+1 lap0
1218Lance StrollASTON MARTIN ARAMCO MERCEDES52+1 lap0
1320Kevin MagnussenHAAS FERRARI52+1 lap0
1477Valtteri BottasKICK SAUBER FERRARI52+1 lap0
1531Esteban OconALPINE RENAULT52+1 lap0
1610Pierre GaslyALPINE RENAULT52+1 lap0
172Logan SargeantWILLIAMS MERCEDES52+1 lap0
NC24Zhou GuanyuKICK SAUBER FERRARI12DNF0
NC3Daniel RicciardoRB HONDA RBPT0DNF0
NC23Alexander AlbonWILLIAMS MERCEDES0DNF0

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