It’s been 308 days since Formula 1 opened a grand prix weekend without Red Bull Racing having been the winner of the previous race.
You have to go all the way back to last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix — off the back of George Russell’s maiden F1 win in Brazil — to find a historical parallel to the bizarre universe we find ourselves in.
But the team bounced back effortless in Yas Marina. The aim is to do the same in Suzuka.
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On paper Suzuka Circuit’s high-speed sweeps, requiring dollops of downforce from these ground-effect cars, should be ideal territory for Red Bull Racing’s almost all conquering RB19.
And without the peculiar characteristics of the bumpy, angular Singapore streets, there’s no reason to expect a repeat of last week’s shock Ferrari result.
“It should be a trickier weekend,” confirmed Singapore winner Carlos Sainz said. “It should make our limitations come back again.
“But at the same time I’m a bit more open-minded about it. Before maybe I was a bit less optimistic, now I want to remain optimistic, and I know that if you do a good lap in qualifying and defend through race like we have done the last three weekends, it can still be a decent result.”
But while both Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez are targeting wins and podiums this weekend, they don’t see the way totally clear.
“It should be a good track for sure, but also when you look around I think McLaren have been making great gains, and they’re normally quite good in the high speed as well, so they can be quite strong here,” Verstappen said. “Over one lap especially they can be very strong, and the race pace you never know.
“For sure over one lap I definitely see them very competitive.”
While Suzuka is no street track, overtaking is usually difficult given the lack of long straights and big braking zones.
We can’t expected Red Bull Racing to be off the pace again, but is it too much to ask to have another team in the mix?
PIT TALK PODCAST: Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz is the first non-Red Bull Racing driver to win a race in 2023 after a defusing a Mercedes chase in a Singapore GP classic.
IS THIS THE WEEKEND OF RED BULL RACING’S SIXTH TITLE?
Red Bull Racing might arrive in Japan off the back of easily its worst result of the year and worst pure performance since perhaps as long ago as 2020, but the thought of an imminent world championship victory will be doing much to soothe any wounds still stinging from Singapore.
Having won all but one of the 15 grands prix this season, Milton Keynes finds itself in a position to wrap up the constructors championship this weekend with fully six races still to run.
The mathematics of the situation are simple.
Red Bull Racing leads Mercedes by 308 points and Ferrari by 332 points. There will be 309 points remaining after the Japanese Grand Prix.
Therefore Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez need outscore the German marque by only one point and prevent Ferrari from outscoring it by more than 23 points to seal the deal.
What does that look like in practice?
Victory for Verstappen and fifth or higher for Pérez would be enough to cover even a Mercedes double-podium finish.
Pérez has an average finishing position of 4.3 for the year to date, so status quo would get the job done.
“It’s a great achievement,” Verstappen said. “It’s something we set out to do as a team at the start of the year and of course something that everyone can be very proud of — of their efforts the whole year but also leading up to the year to making sure the car is in this state.
“For sure if we could win it here, it would mean a little bit extra for everyone, also for Honda being involved with us. It would be very nice.”
It might also overwrite the chaotic memories of Verstappen’s drivers championship victory here last year, when no-one but the TV graphics team seemed certain that the Dutchman had claimed the crown after a rain-shortened race.
As for the drivers championship, Verstappen can’t wrap things up here, but he remains on track to claim the crown in Qatar with a current lead of 151 points over Sergio Pérez.
Sainz claims nail-biting Singapore F1 GP | 02:43
CAN McLAREN’S SEIZE ITS BIG CHANCE?
McLaren has been going from strength to strength since it started its major upgrade program in July, with Lando Norris collecting three podiums and Oscar Piastri coming achingly close to his maiden rostrum on many occasions.
The team’s first truly standout race was the British Grand Prix, where Norris and Piastri qualified second and third and finished second and fourth, with only a badly timed safety car preventing the Australian from mounting the third step.
The revised MCL60 has since been found to work on a wider range of circuits than anticipated, including several the team didn’t expect to suit its aerodynamics platform. The Italian Grand Prix, for example, would have returned a solid double-points finish but for Lewis Hamilton punting Piastri out of the top 10.
But Suzuka isn’t a track the team is expecting to just survive at. The old-school sweeping circuit is one at which the car ought to thrive.
So much of the iconic Japanese track is fast and flowing, the sort of profile the MCL60 eats for breakfast. At Silverstone it was even faster than Verstappen’s all-conquering RB19 through some specific parts of the circuit.
With the exception of the hairpin and the final chicane, there are no corners and few genuinely long straights for the car to fear, and with Piastri set to receive the team’s Singapore-spec upgrade, a big result appears to be on the cards.
“I think everything it did was what it was meant to do,” Norris said of last week’s update package “We definitely took some steps forward.
“I don’t think we’re confident in saying we’re as quick as Red Bull — I think Red Bull will probably be dominant this weekend — but I think comparing us to Ferrari and Mercedes, then Mercedes have been just a lot more consistent than what we have.
“On a good weekend we can be very, very good and maybe a little bit ahead, like we’ve seen in Silverstone and things like that.”
For Piastri Suzuka is another brand-new challenge, but Suzuka’s driving appeal is legendary, and the Australian is eager to get his first taste of this iconic track.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s a circuit I’ve heard plenty of things about and obviously watched a lot growing up, being in Australia, as this was one of the races that was actually quite friendly for me to watch.
“I’ve driven it on video games and simulators. It’s always been a fun track, so I’m looking forward to getting out there tomorrow.”
Lando almost crashes while celebrating | 00:39
WILL ALPHATAURI MAKE THE MOST OF ITS HOME-GROUND ADVANTAGE?
AlphaTauri has reportedly settled on its 2024 driver line-up, with Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo set to get the nod to continue.
But that takes only so much pressure off Tsunoda — and it piles heaps on reserve driver and Ricciardo stand-in Liam Lawson.
Lawson is fighting for his career, even if he’s not sure exactly what kind of career he’s fighting for. His F1 options are limited, and with the clock ticking down to Ricciardo’s return, perhaps as soon as the next race in Qatar, he has limited time to put his argument across.
It’ll be hard to top his Singapore Grand Prix performance, where on his first visit to the street track he qualified inside the top 10 and scored points.
But unlike the three previous tracks he’s tackled, he arrives in Suzuka with the advantage of having already raced here in F1-approximate machinery.
Lawson has credited his Super Formula campaign — in which he’s second in the championship with one round remaining — for his impressive F1 debut. Now he hopes a race at Suzuka earlier this year will prove a progress-boosting experience.
“It definitely helps a bit,” he said. “I feel more prepared for this than Singapore.
“The speed is pretty close, to be honest. Super Formula has really, really quick cars, especially cornering speeds-wise, they’re not that far off Formula 1.
“I would say it’s good that I know the circuit, but I think driving it in this car there will be a lot still to learn. But the positive thing with Formula 1 is you have three sessions to build it up.”
But while Lawson might feel at home around Suzuka’s evocative sweeps, Yuki Tsunoda actually is at home and basking in the privilege of competing in his home grand prix powered by a Japanese engine.
Though he’ll be determined to score a lofty result for the fans, any result might just about do after two effective non-starts in the last two weeks, when the AlphaTauri car has been reasonably competitive.
Massive upgrades brought to Singapore seemed to provide the car a step forward. Japan will be the proof.
“The car was good in Singapore. I think also the car itself, the characteristics of the Singapore track, was probably suiting us anyway,” Tsunoda said.
“Here I think we can see proper aerodynamics, if we actually gain from the aerodynamic side from the car.
“If we perform well, I‘m quite optimistic for the second half of the season.
“We’re expecting good performance here as well. Hopefully we can put it all together.”
Perez overtaken three times in 1 minute | 01:03
CAN LANCE STROLL REVERSE THE FORM SLUMP?
Lance Stroll’s omission from the Singapore Grand Prix after hurting himself in a qualifying crash was just the latest of a series of bad news stories for Aston Martin, which has seen an almost alarming dive in competitiveness in recent months.
In many respects Stroll has been at the epicentre of the team’s struggles. While podiums have dried up for teammate Fernando Alonso, points have evaporated for Stroll. In the last six rounds Alonso has scored 39 points, including a podium, to Stroll’s three.
It’s largely down to this reason that Silverstone has its eyes on McLaren looming large in its mirrors for fourth in the constructors championship rather than looking ahead to Mercedes or Ferrari.
Stroll needs some solid and, most importantly, clean results under his belt in the remaining third of the campaign to justifiably say he’s contributed to the championship effort, and he says skipping last week’s race — due to soreness, not outright injury — was to ensure he was fighting fit for Japan.
“I was healthy to race but I wasn’t physically feeling good enough to do Singapore, which is the hardest race of the year,” he said. “I felt it creeping up on me on Saturday night and I knew it wasn’t going to be fun waking up on Sunday morning.
“It’s always an opportunity to race on Sunday and try to score some points. We saw drivers start pretty far back on Sunday and manage to climb through the field and score points. You never know what happens.
“If I had felt fine and really good, I would have raced, but I really didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do. I really think it would have delayed my recovery to come here and feel 100 per cent.”
With McLaren optimistic for a big weekend, Stroll must turn his recovery into something tangible.
HOW CAN I WATCH IT?
The 2023 Japanese Grand Prix is live and ad-break free during racing on Kayo Sports and Fox Sports 506.
First practice starts on Friday 1:30pm (AEST) ahead of second practice at 5pm.
Final practice is at 1:30pm on Saturday, with qualifying at 5pm.
Pre-race coverage for the Japanese Grand Prix is from 2:30pm, with lights out at 4:00pm.
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