Max Verstappen bounces back with a vengeance at Suzuka practice sessions

Picture: Issei Kato / Reuters.

Picture: Issei Kato / Reuters.

Published Sep 22, 2023


Red Bull's runaway Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen roared back from his team's shock defeat in Singapore with a clear message to rivals at the Japanese Grand Prix on Friday.

The double world champion was a man on a mission at Suzuka, fastest in both practice sessions and laying down a marker with his first lap out of the pits before staying on top throughout the day.

The second session ended two minutes early when Alpine's Pierre Gasly locked up and crashed at Degner Two, bringing out red flags.

Verstappen's record run of 10 wins in a row, and Red Bull's 15 successive victories, came to an end last Sunday when he finished only fifth under the floodlights at Marina Bay with Mexican team mate Sergio Perez eighth.

The Dutch 25-year-old lapped with a best time of one minute 31.647 seconds, 0.626 quicker than Ferrari's Singapore winner Carlos Sainz, in Friday's first session and went on to do a lap of 1:30.688.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who was fourth in practice one when he was testing a new floor on his car, was second in the second session and 0.320 slower than Verstappen.

"It's still early days but certainly Max laid down a statement of intent with his first flying lap of the weekend, which was truly impressive," Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told reporters.

"Max back to the front again, so it was fun while it lasted," joked McLaren boss Zak Brown on Sky Sports television.

Verstappen won in Japan last year from pole position and arrived in Suzuka expecting his car to be back in a dominant position.

McLaren's Lando Norris was third fastest in both sessions, 0.745 and 0.464 off the pace respectively.

Perez, 151 points behind Verstappen after 15 of 22 races, was only 11th and ninth respectively and more than a second slower than his team mate in both.

Red Bull are set to retain their constructors' title in Japan on Sunday, needing to score only a point more than Mercedes, while Verstappen looks likely to clinch his third championship in Qatar in two weeks' time.

Mercedes had George Russell 13th fastest and seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton 16th in session one but, unlike those above them on the timesheets, they did not use the quicker soft tyres in the session.

"We're glad its not a sprint race because we've got a bit of work to do," said Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.

"We just haven't landed with a great balance here ... fundamentally, a bit of work to do on the setup."

Russell was fifth in practice two with Hamilton 14th.

Japan's only driver Yuki Tsunoda was fifth and 18th for AlphaTauri ahead of his home race with Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso sixth in both.

McLaren's Oscar Piastri was seventh and eighth with an upgraded car.

"It was a normal session for us," said Aston Martin team boss Mike Krack. "The drivers are reasonably happy."

Williams' Alex Albon, AlphaTauri's stand-in Liam Lawson - replacing the injured Daniel Ricciardo for a fourth race - and Aston Martin's Lance Stroll completed the top 10 in an uneventful first practice.

Drivers also tested Pirelli tyres for the 2024 season during the session.