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Just a few days after an unexpected outcome at the Singapore Grand Prix, teams and drivers were back on track at a vastly different circuit, the one at Suzuka. After two one-hour sessions, which were run in good weather conditions, we learned a few things and we will look at them in the Japanese GP practice analysis.
Verstappen in command
The last race had a very surprising outcome for Max Verstappen and Red Bull, as their winning streaks came to an abrupt end. Setup woes culminated in a Q2 exit for both Red Bull drivers and, despite good pace in the race, fifth was the best the reigning champion could achieve, as the safety car timing limited his opportunities.
From the outset, it looked like the struggles were track-specific and, as a result, form would be regained at Suzuka. That was confirmed in practice, as Verstappen looked dominant. He was six tenths faster than the next best car in the first practice session, a gap that was reduced to three tenths in the second one.
His race simulation took place with a prototype 2024 tyre compound, which is expected to be the C2 compound next season. Pirelli have brought the C1, C2 and C3 compounds to Suzuka this season and Verstappen’s long run pace was clearly top of the field, so he is looking good in Suzuka.
A tricky day for Perez
Much like a large part of the 2023 season, the story has been different between the two Red Bull teammates. Sergio Perez was eleventh in the first practice session and ninth in the second, on both occasions over a second behind Verstappen.
While he struggled to get close to his teammate in peak performance in both sessions, his race pace was very much a positive sign. He was slower than only Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, so he is still looking good for a podium finish in Japan.
Both championships could be decided this weekend and the results of Perez will be critical in preventing Verstappen from securing his third title and securing the constructors’ championship for Red Bull, in Honda’s backyard.
Ferrari still best of the rest
Ferrari and Carlos Sainz have taken the last two pole positions, despite Monza and Singapore being polar opposites as track layouts. Their performance, especially in the last Grand Prix, was a huge surprise and whether that could be translated into a good result in Suzuka too was still in doubt.
But Ferrari look to be the second fastest team in Japan. This was confirmed by Charles Leclerc finishing second fastest in Free Practice 2, as well as good race pace by both drivers towards the end of that session.
Leclerc will be hoping to show recovery signs this weekend from a personal standpoint, as he has been outperformed by his teammate, Carlos Sainz, the last two weekends and has not even stepped on the podium, despite Ferrari clearly improving.
Aston Martin falling further back
Despite a bit of a resurgence for Aston Martin in Zandvoort, it looks like the car is no longer able to compete with Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren. Monza was expected to be a bit of a struggle, but Singapore should have been a strong weekend for the team.
The weekend got off to a bad start with a heavy crash for Lance Stroll, which eliminated him from further participation. Fernando Alonso had a tricky race, which included a penalty after a mistake in the entry of the pitlane, a bad pitstop, an excursion and mediocre pace, partly thanks to suspension damage.
However, the pace was not that great to start with. He had qualified seventh, even on a circuit which included plenty of traction zones. Suzuka is not well suited to the characteristics of the AMR03 and in FP2 Alonso was seventh fastest, with Stroll down in eleventh. Expect the team to struggle in the high-speed Japanese track.
Williams back in form
The Singapore Grand Prix was a tricky one for Williams and Alex Albon. The FW45 was not best suited to the layout of the street track, but with great results in tracks such as Silverstone and Zandvoort, a rebound was expected for this weekend.
The results of FP2 are a good indication towards that goal, as he was seventh fastest. The low-drag design was on display once again, as Albon was the fastest driver in the final sector. His race simulation was also good, but not impressive, as he was a step below Aston Martin and the rest of the top performing teams.
Logan Sargeant was not as fast, as he was bottom of the FP2 classification. The American is in dire need of a good result, as he tries to keep his Formula 1 career alive.
A puzzling performance from Alpha Tauri
Alpha Tauri have been on a positive trajectory as of late, even if the results do not necessarily reflect that. In fact, Yuki Tsunoda has only completed half a lap in the last two races, as he did not make the start in Monza because of engine issues and he was retired after a clash with Sergio Perez in the opening lap at Singapore.
The potential of the car was still demonstrated by Liam Lawson though. The Kiwi may be in the beginning of his Formula 1 career, subbing in for Daniel Ricciardo, but he has impressed. He was eleventh in Monza and scored two points last time out, having bumped Max Verstappen out of Q3 as well.
With this uptick in performance, it was expected that Alpha Tauri would be in good form at Suzuka, Tsunoda’s home race. It did not pan out that way though, as both drivers were towards the bottom of the FP2 times.
Straight line speed is usually a strong suit for the Italian team’s car, but their cars had some of the slowest speeds among the field. This is especially surprising, considering that the fastest speed was recorded by another Honda-powered car, the one of Max Verstappen.
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