F1 Japanese GP takeaways: Williams’ woes, Red Bull’s status quo statement

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After a chaotic, red flag-triggering Lap 1, the Japanese Grand Prix settled into a rhythm — and a battle of tires and strategy.

Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez steadily pulled away from their front row start for their third 1-2 finish this year, and it became a late run between the Ferraris for who would round out the podium. Charles Leclerc led Carlos Sainz with eight laps to go, but Ferrari warned him not to lose time battling his teammate. The Spaniard, running a different strategy, slipped past for P3.

Down the grid, multiple teams saw contrasting fortunes between their drivers. RB’s Yuki Tsunoda secured another points finish, but Daniel Ricciardo crashed out on the opening lap. Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso secured sixth place, while Lance Stroll finished outside the points and complained about the car’s speed on the straights.

Before Formula One heads into another non-race weekend ahead of its return to China, here are our biggest takeaways from the Japanese GP.

Status quo for Red Bull

Sergio Pérez seems to genuinely love Suzuka, and it loves him back – the first thing he acknowledged on the radio after the race on Sunday was the fervent fans, and he walked up to his post-race interview to chants of “Checo! Checo! Checo!”

Suzuka success eluded Pérez for the first decade of his career – his highest finish was three P7s from 2016 to 2018 with Force India. But after capping off a terrific Japanese GP weekend on Sunday, Pérez has two P2 finishes in three seasons at Red Bull.

Pérez’s third trip to the podium in 2024 has set Red Bull on a strikingly similar path to the start of last season. Pérez won two of the first four races in 2023, leading many to wonder whether he’d challenge Verstappen for the drivers’ championship. That didn’t happen, as Pérez became plagued by midseason qualifying inconsistency and a loss of confidence behind the wheel while Verstappen racked up wins.

So far, Pérez’s confidence looks completely replenished. That’s a bad sign for the rest of the grid but a good sign for fans hoping someone (anyone) makes Verstappen sweat a little in the drivers’ championship in 2024.

Oh, I suppose we should mention that Verstappen led 48 laps and won by 12.5 seconds. The F1TV broadcast didn’t have to mention his name for about half an hour. Verstappen has won from pole in the last three Japanese GPs. – Patrick Iversen

Can Ferrari catch Red Bull?

Coming off a 1-2 finish in Melbourne, Ferrari doubted a repeat would be possible in Suzuka. Qualifying ended with a somewhat surprising result, given how quick the team has been over one lap, but neither driver was up near the top of the timesheet after Q3. Leclerc qualified eight, just a tenth off of Sainz, who qualified P4.

Sainz said on Sunday, “We kind of knew our race pace was better than our qualifying pace. Still probably not enough to go for a win because of obviously starting P4, and given how good the race pace of the Red Bull is, it’s almost impossible to think about a win.”

Strategy was critical in this race as conditions changed. As the Spaniard noted, the race started with the sun, and it turned cloudy as the grand prix wore on. This led to tire degradation going down, which allowed the drivers to push more. “This changed the whole situation quite a lot. At one point, I thought the podium wasn’t possible. But then, with a new hard, the pace was mega, and I could get back onto the podium.”

Ferrari found new ways to impress in Japan. (Toshifumi KITAMURA / AFP)

Six months ago, during the 2023 Japanese GP, Ferrari was far off from Red Bull’s pace. Leclerc was 43.998 seconds off of Verstappen, while Sainz was 50.221 seconds behind the Dutchman. Come Sunday, they halved the time difference, Sainz being only 20.866 seconds off and Leclerc 26.522 seconds. By improving the car, Sainz said it allowed Ferrari “to have more strategic flexibility, that last year we didn’t have. It allows me to go forward in the races and instead of looking in my mirrors all the time to offset myself with strategy and then overtake people, which is something that last year wasn’t on the cards at any point.”

After Sunday’s race, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said, “No one is going to catch Max this year.” Sainz was asked his thoughts on the matter, to which he said, “I think they are definitely going to have an advantage in the first third of the season until we bring one or two upgrades that makes us fight them more consistently, but by that time maybe it’s a bit too late with the advantage that they might have on the championship.”

It’s worth remembering that Sainz is competing with one less race, given that he was sidelined after undergoing surgery for appendicitis. Meanwhile, Leclerc is only five points behind Pérez in the driver standings. “I think we are also much more consistent,” Leclerc said. “Last year, it was very easy for us to do a small mistake with set-up and be completely off in the race, and be much further away than what we would expect.”

It’s evident that Ferrari has improved its car and appears to be closing the gap. That being said, Red Bull still holds a sizable advantage. It’s a game of consistency, and right now, the teams are 21 points apart. — Madeline Coleman

Mercedes’ weekend vibes evaporate

Every weekend this year, Mercedes seems to unravel from practice to the end of the grand prix. The Japanese GP was a classic of the budding genre. Lewis Hamilton called Mercedes’s practice on Friday the “best session of the year.” He was noticeably a little less enthused after qualifying when he (P7) and teammate George Russell (P9) extracted less from the W15 than they’d hoped. And then, in the grand prix, Mercedes floundered a bit.

Mercedes entered the grand prix with options thanks to its tire allocation (two hards and one medium set). It used one of the hard sets after the red flag, hoping that tire degradation would play in its favor and leave it sitting pretty on a one-stop strategy. Instead, it had what team boss Wolff called “an atrocious first stint.” Both drivers complained about dying tires earlier than expected, forcing Mercedes to pivot to the same two-stop strategy as everyone else.

Even though Mercedes’s raw pace held serve with the likes of McLaren and Fernando Alonso, the W15’s usual weaknesses at high speed and understeer held it back. Russell finished P7; Hamilton finished P9. And yet, Mercedes leaves Japan with more optimism than it brought.

“​​It is live testing now for us,” Wolff said. “We’ve been on the back foot and besides our shoes for two seasons, and now we’ve taken a different direction. And I think this is happening … definitely much better (understanding this weekend.) Lots more. Lots more data points in the right direction, even if it’s not reflected in the results.”  — Patrick Iversen

The Williams woes continue

It’s not typical for a team to endure three big crashes across two race weekends — and it’s certainly not good

Williams entered the Japanese GP weekend with a repaired chassis after Alex Albon’s incident in Australia, but no spare once again. The first practice session appeared decent for the team at first — until Logan Sargeant wrecked (and his car had the repaired chassis). Team boss James Vowles shared Friday that the damage was “pretty significant,” adding, “The chassis is OK, fortunately, but I would say pretty much everything else isn’t. So suspension all round, gearbox cracked, big damage.”

The team repaired the car in time for third practice and qualifying, in which Albon placed P14 and Sargeant P19. Starting on the hard tire, Albon had a grip advantage compared to those further up the grid who started on the medium compound, like Daniel Ricciardo in P11.

Disaster struck early. Trying to get Ricciardo off his line, Albon pulled onto the right side of the RB, but the Australian driver was watching Lance Stroll on his left and didn’t notice the Williams. The two touched, spun off, and slammed into the barrier, triggering a red flag. “I tried to back out of it last minute,” Albon said. “There was a moment where I realized he hasn’t seen me here and the way he’s pulling it across. It’s tricky. So I hit the brakes and tried to get out of it. But we’re almost too far alongside him.”

Williams is in an incredibly tricky spot at the moment, and right before he hit the wall, Albon said the thought that crossed his mind that another crash was “exactly what we don’t need.” The damage to the car still needs to be assessed.

“It is just a lot of time and effort to repair, rather than to develop and then focus on the upgrades,” Albon said. “So yeah, it will pay its toll later on into the season.”

From Lap 2, Williams needed Sargeant to deliver a clean race. The American driver navigated his way up to P11 at one point, but after his second pit stop, Sargeant was left pushing to catch his competitors and ended up bottoming on the exit of a curb and locking up. He reversed the car and continued, finishing P17. But Vowles saw positives. “What I’m encouraged by is Logan in that race was fighting for it against other competitors around him, the same age tires and overtaking them,” he told F1TV. “And that just gives me encouragement that the race package we have isn’t bad. We weren’t there in Melbourne but here, we were there  or thereabouts.” — Madeline Coleman

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The Japanese GP ended early for Ricciardo and Albon. (Clive Rose – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

RB’s contrasting fortunes

Race starts can be messy, especially with drivers starting on different tire compounds.

Ricciardo started his race P11 on the medium tires, like multiple other drivers ahead of him. But he had a poor start, and those starting on the grippier soft compound soon came charging up. The Australian driver was watching Lance Stroll on his left, “trying to hold him off” when he hit Albon, who was making a move on his right.

“I didn’t see him. But honestly, I always assume maybe someone is there. It’s Lap 1 so I never try to use the full width of the track and be completely ignorant. But yeah, I guess there was obviously not enough room,” Ricciardo said.

As he later noted, Lap 1 incidents are tricky because it leaves one to wonder ‘what if?’ He has had a less than stellar season as Tsunoda, his teammate, continues to outperform him. When asked about Sunday’s incident in the context of the season, Ricciardo said, “I think today is a singular moment, in terms of I don’t look at today and think, ‘Oh man this year, like when it rains, it pours,’ or whatever. I feel it was just one of those things. We know that 24 races, it’s probably likely that maybe I’m involved in another Lap 1 incident. It’s just probability in that.”

Team principal Laurent Mekies, though, told The Athletic’s Luke Smith that he felt Ricciardo “is on a positive trend” and had the pace to score points in Australia, where he finished P12. Ricciardo also didn’t have much running this weekend, between Ayumu Iwasa driving his car in FP1 and FP2 being marked with rain.

On the other side of the garage, Tsunoda “didn’t put a foot wrong” on Sunday, Mekies said. The Japanese driver nailed key overtakes in the esses as he navigated his way into points during his home grand prix. “He managed his tires when he had to, pushed very hard when he had to,” Mekies said. “It was (a) really fully (controlled) race, and I think it’s a very impressive demonstration of strength that he has done today again, after what he has done already in Australia two weeks ago.”

Four races into the season, Tsunoda continues to be consistent. “He’s certainly very seriously stepping up right now,” Mekies said. — Madeline Coleman

A tale of two Astons

I can’t recall the last time Lance Stroll’s voice rose an octave while complaining about his car over the radio. Maybe never? But it happened on Sunday at Suzuka as Stroll scrapped with Valtteri Bottas and the Haas cars en route to a P12 finish.

It’s worth noting that his teammate, Fernando Alonso, finished far ahead in P6, had a relatively quiet day, and held off Oscar Piastri for much of the race.

Stroll grew frustrated driving in Tsunoda’s dirty air, unable to pass late in the race, and ended up pitting three times. He did pull off a sweet move around the outside on Kevin Magnussen in the esses late, but the difference between Stroll’s day behind the wheel and Alonso’s is notable.

Although they were driving different-spec cars, and Stroll noted unforced errors on his side of the garage, the difference between the two Aston Martin drivers’ self-assessments was stark.

“I think we just had the wrong rear wing on the car today,” Stroll said. “I had to do all my overtaking at Turn 6 and couldn’t pass anyone on the straights just with the lack of straight-line speed. And you know, some things with strategy I think we could’ve done differently today. So just a difficult weekend overall … one of those weekends to forget about.”

Meanwhile, Alonso called it a top five weekend in his 21-year career. “I think (the) P5 yesterday in qualifying, that lap, and P6 today in the race, is completely out of position. So, yeah, very proud.”

That sounds like both drivers think they extracted everything they could from an imperfect car. “We are the fifth-fastest team, by a good margin from the fourth and by a good margin to the sixth,” Alonso said. “We are quite established there.” However, only one of the Aston Martin drivers finished in the top 10. – Patrick Iversen

Notes and quotes

  • The race stewards issued two decisions after the race: They took no further action on the incident between Ricciardo and Albon, stating, “The explanations of both drivers were aligned as to the facts of the incident.” Namely, Ricciardo didn’t see Albon on his right, squeezed him, and the two crashed — a textbook racing incident.
  • The stewards also took no further action on Russell for causing Piastri to leave the track between Turns 16 and 17 later in the race. Though the stewards said the incident “provided a number of challenges in arriving at a decision,” both drivers and teams agreed a penalty was not warranted.
  • It has been one [1] race weekend without a slow Sauber pit stop, a good sign that the team has started to figure out the hub and wheel nut issues that have plagued it early this season. Even then, Zhou Guanyu’s drivetrain gave up the ghost, forcing an early retirement. All we’re asking is for one clean weekend to see what the Sauber and Williams cars are capable of—just one!
  • I audibly gasped when Sargeant reversed back onto the track at the entrance to Degner Curve. That’s such a dangerous place to reverse.
  • After his P8 finish on Sunday, Oscar Piastri is on pace for 192 points. Very quietly.
  • Also very quiet: Haas drivers Nico Hülkenberg (P11) and Kevin Magnussen (P13) had another very solid finish just outside the points. “After that second start, I’m honestly a bit surprised that I managed to come back to where I did,” Hülkenberg said. “I think it’s half a miracle, to be honest. It showed that we had good pace.” – Patrick Iversen

Additional reporting by Luke Smith.

(Lead image of Lewis Hamilton, Alex Albon’s wrecked Williams car and Yuki Tsunoda: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP, Kym Illman, Mark Thompson via Getty Images)

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