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Formula 1 Japanese GP

10 things we learned at the 2023 F1 Japanese Grand Prix

Max Verstappen delivered a crushingly dominant performance at the Japanese Grand Prix to banish fears of a dramatic fall from grace as Red Bull secured its sixth Formula 1 constructors' championship title. With Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri highlighting McLaren's recent resurgence with podium finishes, here are 10 things we learned from the Suzuka weekend

The Red Bull Racing team celebrate victory in the race and the 2023 Constructors title

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Max Verstappen and Red Bull winning Formula 1’s 2023 Japanese Grand Prix by a commanding 19.4-second margin might sound a very familiar tale, but this was coming one week on from their shock defeat in the Singapore race. 

There was therefore plenty of attention being paid to the potential true impact of the twin technical directives now in force covering flexing wings and floors. But Red Bull utterly rebuffed this intrigue with its RB19’s display back at a smooth, sweeping course where the car was designed to thrive. His usual advantage restored, Verstappen was devastatingly good, while team-mate Sergio Perez had another poor weekend. 

McLaren took up the chase, with Ferrari slipping back to third quickest but showing good progress in an important area. Then there were a few themes of the Singapore weekend cropping up again, plus the latest on Daniel Ricciardo’s injury recovery, the final moves in the driver market and a bizarre Alpine team orders spat. 

All that and more is included here in the pick of what we learned from F1's latest visit to Suzuka. 

1. Singapore really was just a blip for Verstappen and Red Bull 

Verstappen proved that Singapore was a one-off slide from perfection for Red Bull

Verstappen proved that Singapore was a one-off slide from perfection for Red Bull

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Just five days on from Red Bull’s humbling in the 2023 Singapore GP, Verstappen led the pack out the pits at Suzuka. His opening flier put him well clear of the rest and the Dutchman just never looked back for the rest of a weekend where his car could return to the lower ride heights where it is designed to produce its underfloor downforce best. 

He was utterly supreme in qualifying on this old-school and challenging track, which for 2023 had an extra challenge of high temperatures and a knock-on impact into tyre life on the rough track surface. None of it ruffled Verstappen, who delivered a stunning run between the safety car restart and his final traffic-laden stint after he’d seen off the attentions of the two McLaren cars at the start. 

PLUS: How Verstappen’s crushing Japanese GP win showed Singapore was a blip

After qualifying, he quite rightly rebuked those who had lazily attributed Red Bull’s Singapore dip to any major impact of the flexi-wing and floor technical directives. 

“Honestly, yeah, we had a bad weekend,” Verstappen said. “Of course then people start talking about [how] ‘it's all because of the technical directives’. I think they can go suck on an egg. But for my side, I was just very fired up to have a good weekend here and make sure that we were strong.” 

2. Perez must escape his current chaos to have any chance for 2024 

Perez retired twice after needing two front wing changes in a handful of laps

Perez retired twice after needing two front wing changes in a handful of laps

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

While Verstappen was untouchable in qualifying, it was still a shock that Red Bull didn’t lock out the front row, such was the RB19’s prowess in the sweeping, technical opening sector here. That was down to Perez “struggling was mainly in the high-speed corners compared to Max”, per Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, plus only having one set of new softs left in Q3. 

Then in the main event, Perez’s slightly slow getaway undid his race as the pack pinching left towards the racing line – a move actually innocently triggered by Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari on the inside – meant he collided with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes coming by on the outside. That meant needing to pit for a new front wing, but in doing so Perez passed Fernando Alonso under the safety car at the pitlane entrance, which earned a five-second penalty. 

After the restart he clattered into Kevin Magnussen, got another penalty for it and had to retire with his car damaged from both shunts. Then there were the stunning scenes of Red Bull sending him back out to serve his penalty for the Magnussen shunt via a rules loophole, which was canny thinking from the team but only served to be the highlight of Perez’s awful race. This included stop one pitlane exit confusion behind the safety car and running slowly under the VSC to confuse Norris as he came by to lap the Red Bull

The 2023 world title is all but over and had been long lost after his strong start. Ending the season with this current run of crashes firmly in the past must be Perez’s focus now, or he’ll go into 2024 with even more pressure on his F1 future. 

3. Top drawer Piastri still needs to catch Norris in one critical area 

Piastri bagged his first F1 podium but was some way short of team-mate Norris on Sunday

Piastri bagged his first F1 podium but was some way short of team-mate Norris on Sunday

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

In his rookie campaign, Piastri has already shown enough F1 quality to earn a long stint in the championship (more on that later), but there was more excellence on display at Suzuka. The track’s fast corners may favour McLaren’s strengths, but it’s still a tough challenge little different from battles here of old.  

And Piastri shone in qualifying to head even a team-mate as rapid as Norris. At the start, he briefly challenged Verstappen before hitting wheelspin, which meant Norris could plunge into Verstappen-bothering position for Turn 2.

PLUS: How McLaren has revamped its F1 team to become a contender again

Piastri had the fortune of the virtual safety car coming on while he was pitting for the first time, which meant he repassed at Norris’s first stop. But inferior pace once the tyre management race settled down and they were both running hards meant Norris came back up behind and was waved through after some discussion over George Russell’s one-stop threat. 

PLUS: Japanese Grand Prix Driver Ratings 2023

This all became a 17s gap at the finish, which left Piastri feeling he needed to improve on “the tyre management” and “just pace at certain points of the race was not as strong as I would have liked”.  

He added after scoring his first F1 GP podium: “The first stint it felt like everyone was driving extremely slowly and then when I tried to push a bit more the tyres didn't really let me go much faster. So, a few things to work on there.”

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4. Ferrari’s tyre degradation weakness really does look better, with Leclerc shining at Sukuka 

Ferrari's resurgence continued at Suzuka, with Leclerc taking a marked step forward

Ferrari's resurgence continued at Suzuka, with Leclerc taking a marked step forward

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

After being outshone by team-mate Carlos Sainz since the summer break, Leclerc rather struck back by being the lead driver for Ferrari across the Japan weekend sessions that mattered.  

PLUS: Why Sainz’s Singapore F1 success was not just about DRS genius

His race pace, all while stopping relatively early given the undercut’s power here, meant he was at times in range to threaten Piastri. Leclerc actually thought he was racing for a podium, after mistaking the hobbled Perez for Verstappen around the VSC. But result of fourth on a track not suited to the SF-23 and the hot conditions and track surface combination represents an excellent result overall, after he’d headed Perez in qualifying too. 

Leclerc felt “another weekend like this is good in a way because it confirms exactly what we understood in the last few races” regarding improving on tyre life – Ferrari’s major weakness in the season’s early phase. Team boss Fred Vasseur actually felt “we were probably a bit too conservative” on tyre management pace compared to McLaren, all of which is encouraging for Ferrari’s future on weekends where Red Bull and others are at full strength. 

5. DRS defence tactics don’t always work out, as Mercedes discovered 

Russell and Hamilton tried and failed to recreate Sainz's brilliant DRS trickery from Singapore

Russell and Hamilton tried and failed to recreate Sainz's brilliant DRS trickery from Singapore

Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images

Sainz’s nous in handing Norris DRS to help their positions at the end of the Singapore race was again in mind during the closing stages of at Suzuka – this time with the Mercedes pair trying to replicate the tactic and Sainz bearing down. 

Mercedes had opted to split its strategies after Hamilton’s Turn 1 contact with Perez and Alonso powering by into Turn 3 meant both Black Arrows drivers were knock off the strategy path they’d targeted, which involved challenging Ferrari on a course that didn’t suit the W14 package mainly lacking downforce in Suzuka’s opening sector. 

After a rare Hamilton error at Degner 1 before he pitted for the first time, he and Russell nearly tangled when the chasing Mercedes attacked at Spoon – Hamilton’s defence right on the line of acceptable. After this, Russell converted to a one-stopper and as the leaders came back through put in his own hard defence against Leclerc at Turn 2, which was great driving overall.  

Then Hamilton was homing back into view having undercut past Sainz at his second stop in Leclerc’s wake – his pace revived. After Russell waved him through into Turn 1 with five laps left, following a radio protest, Hamilton pressed on only to be called back to give his team-mate DRS ahead of Sainz.  

“They had obviously thought of it from the last race and it made no sense,” said Hamilton afterwards, with Sainz getting by Russell regardless and pressuring the lead Mercedes to the finish. But Mercedes was satisfied its strategy gamble came at no cost as Alonso was by this point no threat to Russell behind. 

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6. Alpine’s driver line-up can still be combustible  

Gasly was furious at being ordered to allow team-mate Ocon back through on the final lap

Gasly was furious at being ordered to allow team-mate Ocon back through on the final lap

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Coming into 2023, there had been much focus on how the Pierre Gasly versus Esteban Ocon dynamic would play out after the former had joined Alpine after exiting the Red Bull/AlphaTauri fold given their strained relationship as junior drivers. But that had simmered down to a non-issue despite their unfortunate Melbourne and Budapest shunts, plus Alpine’s overall pace struggles and management turnover. 

But at the end of the Suzuka race, Gasly reacted with hand-waving fury and hot comments to the media after finally obeying an order to let his team-mate through to finish ninth. This had followed Ocon being involved in the Alex Albon/Valtteri Bottas Turn 1 clash and having to stop for his own repairs before putting in a long recovery drive on an effective one-stopper with two lengthy stints on the hards. His pace on these was enough to climb back into points contention and frustrate Alonso for a time. 

But with Gasly on fresher tyres towards the end he came by, with Ocon understanding he’d be put ahead again if his team-mate couldn’t catch the sole remaining Aston. When Gasly couldn’t, he had to be repeatedly asked to pull over, which he did very reluctantly in sight of the line. 

"It wasn't discussed before the race," Gasly said amongst other things, such as “it's not something I really understand as well as I was the leading car”. 

“I don't know when it has been said and that is the point we need to clarify,” said Alpine’s interim team principal Bruno Famin. 

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7. Verstappen should’ve been penalised for his Singapore impeding 

Verstappen's pair of reprimands in Singapore caused eyebrows to be raised

Verstappen's pair of reprimands in Singapore caused eyebrows to be raised

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The minor controversy over Verstappen’s actions during qualifying for the previous race in Singapore rumbled on into the Suzuka weekend. At the regular weekend team managers’ meeting in Japan, Matteo Perini, who served as one the stewards in Singapore and did likewise a week later, informed the teams that the reprimand decision handed to Verstappen when running in front of Yuki Tsunoda in Singapore’s Q2 should have been a grid penalty

This is important because the sanction and the arguments around it otherwise might’ve set a precedent for future calls. It was also established in Japan that although the circumstances were different, Williams driver Logan Sargeant should have probably had also received a penalty for a separate incident involving Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll in Singapore qualifying. 

It was, however, reiterated that Verstappen should’ve received no penalty for his actions in holding up a queue of cars in the Marina Bay pitlane, as this is not specifically banned in the rules. It has been suggested the FIA should add a rule to cover such events in the future.  

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8. AlphaTauri’s 2024 Tsunoda/Ricciardo line-up leaves impressive Lawson still looking in 

Lawson has impressed as cover for Ricciardo but must wait for his next F1 chance

Lawson has impressed as cover for Ricciardo but must wait for his next F1 chance

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Ahead of qualifying for the Suzuka race, AlphaTauri announced that it would retain its regular line-up of Tsunoda and the injured Daniel Ricciardo for 2024 – the latter only promoted to Faenza and Bicester-based team’s roster for the pre-summer break Hungarian GP at the expense of Nyck de Vries

This decision means Liam Lawson, who has subbed in for Ricciardo since the Australian’s F1 comeback was punctured by his hand injury in a Zandvoort practice crash, is set to only remain reserve driver for both Red Bull and AlphaTauri next year. This is despite the New Zealander, who could still yet win the 2023 Super Formula championship where he has been racing full-time this year, putting in a series of impressive performances. These include scoring his maiden points in Singapore and with Tsunoda’s overall form remaining patchy. 

PLUS: How Tsunoda has eliminated a crucial F1 limitation

Ricciardo was always considered certain to be retained by AlphaTauri for 2024 given his experience level and huge profile just as the team is set to undergo its second major rebrand since Red Bull bought the former Minardi squad and made it is junior team for 2005. But Lawson is thought likely to continue his 2023 F1 cameo bow in place of Ricciardo until the next round in Qatar, if the latter cannot demonstrate he has recovered sufficiently during simulator running for the returning Losail event in the coming days. 

It also remains possible that Lawson could be a candidate to replace Sargeant at Williams, with the American lacking a contract for next year and being involved in a series of incidents and underwhelming performances in his maiden campaign. Red Bull and Williams have form in doing deals over reserve drivers, which is how Alex Albon was able to rejoin the F1 grid in a race role for 2022. 

9. Gasly wants Alpine to narrow its cockpit size for 2024, at long-armed Ocon’s expense

Gasly and Ocon are split on a key design issue

Gasly and Ocon are split on a key design issue

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Another more minor but still intriguing detail for the 2024 season also emerged over the Suzuka weekend: that Gasly wants Alpine to narrow its cockpit size to gain aerodynamic performance for next year after finding he had excess room aboard the A523 in 2023. 

Gasly, who joined Alpine from AlphaTauri to race alongside fellow Frenchman Ocon for this year, explained this had been made so because “we've got one tall driver with long arms and long limbs”. Ocon is 6ft1, while Gasly is 5ft8. 

PLUS: Why the reality of F1 engineering debriefs isn't what Drive to Survive makes out

“We're kind of going in the same direction,” Gasly said of Alpine’s 2024 car design preparation in the run up to the Japanese race. “Apart from the very long arms that he has! I'm requesting a tighter cockpit for obvious gains and he's not so keen. 

“I don't know how he drives, but he needs slightly more space than me. We'll see how that goes, but I must say that's probably the only area where he'll favour comfort over maybe more bias towards performance.” 

10. Piastri’s Alonso and Schumacher traits a factor in his new 2026 contract 

Piastri has already been compared to some F1 greats

Piastri has already been compared to some F1 greats

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

McLaren’s decision to hand Piastri a new contract that will run up to the end of the 2026 campaign was communicated ahead of the Suzuka event getting going, but once it had, the orange squad’s team principal, Andrea Stella, was keen to explain exactly why it had locked the rookie into a long-term arrangement. 

This took place in a specially convened press conference to discuss Piastri’s new deal. That contract has similarities in how McLaren, which also announced in Japan it has signed Le Mans 24 Hours winner Ryo Hirakawa to be one of its 2024 reserve drivers, also handed Lando Norris a series of extensions soon after his F1 arrival. In his comments on Piastri, Stella also compared him to two of F1’s famed multi-champions, whom the Italian has previously worked with as a race engineer. 

“I'm sure there were a lot of people that were talented, but it didn't lead anywhere because there was no attitude to continuous improvement,” Stella said. 

“I think we have really good examples now on the grid, of drivers that can keep being extremely competitive at ages that we didn't think would be obvious, because of an attitude to continuously improve. So, in this sense, I think this one is a similarity with Fernando.” 

He added: “The values he brings into the collaboration with the team, in this sense, makes me think about Michael [Schumacher].”

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Suzuka delivered another intriguing battle - behind the dominant Verstappen

Suzuka delivered another intriguing battle - behind the dominant Verstappen

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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