Written by Maria Fashchevskaya, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
A thrilling qualifying ended with another Verstappen pole, this time around the Suzuka Circuit. Although Red Bull encountered a difficult Singapore weekend last time out, they have laid down a strong marker at the Japanese Grand Prix, with a scorching lap by Verstappen resuming normal proceedings. At 5.8 kilometres long, and plenty of elevation changes, this circuit is considered a favourite among drivers, making it more exciting to see how the race will fare on Sunday.
However, breaking news left a mark this Saturday: Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Riccardo signing contracts for 2024 with Red Bull’s junior team, pushing Kiwi driver Liam Lawson out of a possible seat at the Red Bull-backed team. It is the home favourite Tsunoda who was celebrated most this weekend, and already left a mark in this weekend’s qualifying.
The red flag came out nine minutes into Q1. Logan Sargeant crashed into the wall after a snap of oversteer on his flying lap, causing the Williams to finish with ‘no time’ in Q1. Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll was unable to exit Q1, too. Being in 17th position for the race, it is the second race in succession that saw him knocked out in the first stage of qualifying.
Starting ahead of Stroll is Valtteri Bottas in the Alfa Romeo, while teammate Zhou Guanyu starts 19th. Nico Hulkenberg splits both drivers in his Haas, having failed to escape Q1.
Liam Lawson improving on familiar ground
Q2 began with pace-setter Verstappen topping the timesheets with 1m 29.964s on his first and only run. As many cars returned to the track for another run around Suzuka, Verstappen, Piastri and Norris remained in the garage to save some sets of soft tyres. This brought a new pace-setting time from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, on a 1m 29.940s.
Another impressive qualifying could be seen from the Alpha Tauri of Liam Lawson. Having raced on the track in the ongoing Super Formula championship, there was less doubt he would perform well. The Kiwi driver set good lap times in Q2 – rising to as high as fourth place – but was knocked out, in 11th position, paying the price for using an extra set of soft tyres in Q1. He was followed by the two Alpine drivers, Pierre Gasly in 12th, and Ocon in 14th, another disappointing session for the French team.
Albon managed to split the Alpine racers in 13th, a strong effort from the Williams racer, given the struggles the Grove outfit had experienced all weekend.
Max Verstappen flying to pole
It was no wonder who would nail pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix. Having led every practice session across the weekend, Max Verstappen will head the field on race day, after a stunning final effort in Q3. He completed a second run of 1:28.877 in Q3, half a second ahead of a McLaren, and best across all three sectors.
“From our side, incredible weekend so far and especially in qualifying, the car felt really nice. You never know how good it's going to be but from lap one it felt really, really nice”, the World Championship leader said after the race.
A new face starts alongside the Dutchman in the front row this weekend: McLaren’s Oscar Piastri. “The first lap was pretty solid, I was quite happy with it, it was a good lap but the second lap - my first sector was good, the next two not so good”, the Australian summoned up the results. “The upgrades on the car - yeah, they are quick. First time I've started on the front row for a while, but it will be cool!”
Starting from the second row, just behind his teammate, is McLaren’s Lando Norris: “A very good day for us as a team, a P2 and a P3 - a great job by Oscar. I was pretty happy with my laps, it's a tricky circuit to put everything together”, Norris said after qualifying. McLaren’s CEO, Zak Brown, is seemingly very happy, too, with the results, as he spoke with Sky Sports after Q3: “They are definitely getting the best out of this car that all the men and women at McLaren have given them.” Shortly after Norris and Piastri told Sky Sports of their intentions to try to jump Max Verstappen in similar ways, like they did at Silverstone.
A good surprise this weekend saw home favourite Tsunoda make it to Q3 for the first time this season. Having set a lap of 1m 30.303s on the clock, on his final lap, the Japanese youngster will start ninth for tomorrow's race.
The starting grid’s top five is completed by Charles Leclerc and the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez. The winner of last week’s Grand Prix, Carlos Sainz, will start sixth for the race, followed by the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, respectively. The top ten – as already said – is completed by AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Fernando Alonso. The latter continued his run of making it to Q3 at every race this season.
Watch the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka on Sunday when the lights go out at 2 p.m. track time (6 a.m. BST).