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10 things we learned from the 2024 F1 Japanese Grand Prix

Max Verstappen returned to the top step of the Formula 1 podium at the Japanese Grand Prix, leading home team-mate Sergio Perez for a Red Bull 1-2 in a race that included a good, old-fashioned strategic battle and highlighted the chasm between certain driver pairings. This and plenty more is what we learned in Suzuka

Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, 2nd position, and the Red Bull team celebrate

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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Was the final result of the Japanese Grand Prix predictable? Ultimately, yes, but how this year's Formula 1 race at Suzuka unravelled wasn't entirely typical thanks to the variance in strategies across the field.
Max Verstappen chalked up a third win as he embarks upon a seemingly inevitable march towards a fourth title, but the action behind proved intriguing as pitstops defined the cut-and-thrust of the weekend's action.
With a little over six months between last year's race in Japan and this year's round, it was a prime opportunity to determine the progress made from the end of 2023. Among the other stories, there was also a successful homecoming, ever-escalating repair bills in one corner of the field, and discussions over a previous favourite returning to the grid.
Here are the key things that we learned from this year's Japanese GP weekend.

1. Verstappen barely broke a sweat as Red Bull reclaimed form

Three wins from four and this time Verstappen made it look easy

Three wins from four and this time Verstappen made it look easy

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

'Just' 12 seconds separated Verstappen and Sergio Perez at the chequered flag at Suzuka. After an off weekend in Australia, the Milton Keynes squad resumed its stranglehold over the 2024 order with a controlled race at powertrain supplier Honda's home race. Both drivers sang from the same strategic hymn sheet too, opting to open the race with two medium-tyre stints before bringing it home on the hard tyres.
Although tyre wear was high, both drivers managed their races well. Perez admitted that he'd perhaps over-consumed tyre life in the opening pair of stints on the yellow-walled tyre, but this did not prove too detrimental to his fortunes over the course of the race. After dropping the ball in Australia as Red Bull struggled to contend with the higher level of graining prevalent throughout, an out-and-out degradation race continues to be the team's bread and butter.
The only minor moment of conflict, if you can generously call it as such, was Verstappen's note on the radio about front-wing level. Race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase had suggested that carrying less front wing would help his RB20 counter oversteer when the fuel started to burn off, but Verstappen wanted more wing dialled in at the start. The championship leader then conceded that he might have been off in his estimations - Lambiase dryly replying that “I won't say I told you so, but understood.".
“We had, not an argument, but he said, ‘are you sure you want to do this?’ I was pretty sure and it turned out to be wrong!” Verstappen revealed after the race. “But he was right.”

2. There's merit to strategic variance as tactical battle ensues

Leclerc made a one-stop plan work to climb the order

Leclerc made a one-stop plan work to climb the order

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

High levels of tyre degradation at the technical Suzuka course rarely yields a one-stop race, especially as a starting track temperature of 40C offered further early thermal degradation to contend with. Yet, all three tyre compounds were legitimate options in certain situations; eight drivers elected to start on the softs to collect early track position, although many of them switched compounds during the red flag to something more durable.
Although it rarely looked in doubt that Red Bull would stride towards a 1-2 finish at a canter, the action behind was defined by pitstop tactics; early undercuts offered much in the way of instant rewards in track position, but with the risk that later-stopping cars could overturn their advantage later on. Lando Norris found that, having looked in contention for a podium position earlier on in the grand prix before the Ferraris began their riposte.
Driver Ratings: Japanese Grand Prix
The conventional two-stopper exhibited by the Red Bulls and Carlos Sainz appeared to be the most effective at the front, but Charles Leclerc battled into podium contention with a one-stopper. Three-stop efforts were also employed, albeit to little success, but the nature of pitstop cycles ensured that the race was never a one-dimensional encounter. 

3. Ferrari's 23-second progress towards Red Bull in six months

Progress for Ferrari, but a large gap remains to Red Bull

Progress for Ferrari, but a large gap remains to Red Bull

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Leclerc was the highest-placed Ferrari driver in last year's race, finished 44 seconds down on winner Verstappen in fourth. Sainz took that mantle this year to bring his SF-24 home on the podium, 21 seconds away from the same winner. That's a pretty heady gain of 23 seconds towards Red Bull over the six months between the two recent editions of the Japanese Grand Prix, one that underlines the startling progress that Ferrari has made to its fortunes in the races.
That Leclerc could execute a one-stop strategy might have seemed out of reach last season, when tyre management issues plagued the red cars on a weekly basis. The work being carried out at Maranello to beat Red Bull is nowhere near done on that front, but it has at least converged towards its rival outfit. 
Inconsistencies in qualifying, particularly on Leclerc's side of the garage, have provided the latest head-scratcher. The Monegasque is struggling to identify the right tyre preparation method with the new car and only managed eighth on the grid in Japan, but that'll surely start to fall into place with time.

4. Mercedes' difficult weekend adds long-awaited W15 insight

Hamilton cut a frustrated figure after the Japanese GP

Hamilton cut a frustrated figure after the Japanese GP

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

After persisting with a similar car concept between 2022 and 2023, Mercedes has had to learn an entirely new script with its W15 this season. Starting from scratch is never easy, but the Brackley squad seems to have made a few breakthroughs in Suzuka - even if its performance didn't fully realise that over the weekend.
A weakness in high-speed corners appears to be the main bugbear, demonstrated by its lacklustre turn of pace in Jeddah's opening sector a few weeks ago. Low-fuel runs, per George Russell, seem to expose that weakness the most. Correlation between the team's wind tunnel and the real world appears to diverge in those high-speed situations, something that the team must overcome when it next crunches the numbers.
Toto Wolff revealed more about the W15's quirks after the Japanese Grand Prix, explaining that the car is producing the expected downforce in those corners - but it doesn't seem to yield any further lap time. “We are measuring downforce with our sensors and pressure tabs, and it's saying to us that we have 70 points more downforce in a particular corner in Melbourne than we had last year," the Austrian divulged. “But, on the lap time, it is not one kilometre per hour faster. It doesn't make any sense. So, where's the limitation?"
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Mercedes toyed with its suspension set-up over the weekend to try to provoke the car into benefitting from that greater level of downforce, and may need to investigate the ride of the W15 further to elicit further breakthroughs.

5. Suzuka displayed the gulf between Aston Martin's driving duo

Stroll was completely outclassed by Alonso in Japan

Stroll was completely outclassed by Alonso in Japan

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"I think it was my best weekend - or inside the top five ever, for me. I think P5 in qualifying, that lap, and P6 in the race is completely out of position."
Fernando Alonso, to his credit, does not deny himself praise. It might seem incongruous to recognise a sixth-place finish as one of his best ever races given that he has 32 grand prix victories to his name, but it does underline the sterling efforts that the veteran Spaniard demonstrated throughout the Japanese GP weekend. A stellar stint on the soft tyres at the start of the race might have been difficult for a lesser driver to contend with, but he made his life a lot easier throughout the rest of the race with it.
Then there was his defence from Piastri, where he willingly gave up DRS in the main straight to counter it with energy deployment having charged up his battery over the rest of the lap. When Russell came to play behind them, Alonso fed Piastri to the sharks and dropped the pair of them to cement his position in the race.
On a circuit that truly rewards the driver, Alonso's pursuits were in stark contrast to those of Lance Stroll. The Canadian indulged in a voice-cracking radio rant about his Aston Martin's straightline speed, after an initially good start to his final stint on softs petered out as the tyre life went away from him. Perhaps it wasn't the tyre to be on at that time but, if Stroll wasn't so off the pace over the weekend, Aston Martin might not have needed to experiment with his strategy.

6. Williams' repair bills are continuing to escalate

'Chassis number three, please' - Albon has damaged two chassis in as many events for Williams

'Chassis number three, please' - Albon has damaged two chassis in as many events for Williams

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

After Alex Albon put his Williams in the wall during Melbourne's FP1 session, Williams shipped his chassis back to the UK for repairs and packed it back up for the Japan round for Logan Sargeant to use. It might have been slightly bruised, but there was little wrong with it; at least, until Sargeant carelessly placed it into the tyre barrier at the Dunlop Curve. He was admittedly lucky that he didn't have to sit out the round again, as Williams could repair it in the garage.
James Vowles' oft-furrowed brow wrinkled more when Albon was shown into the wall at Turn 3 on the opening lap of the Suzuka race. Daniel Ricciardo had attempted to make up for a slow exit out of Turn 2 and looked to his left to assess a threat from Stroll - but did not check the other mirror and shoved Albon off the circuit to put them both out on the spot.
Williams will have to ship that car back and give it the once over for China, as a spare chassis will not be completed until Miami at the earliest. In the meantime, Sargeant had to persist with old parts after his FP1 shunt and had a relatively low-key race until he plundered the Degner 2 gravel trap and was lucky not to pop it into the wall again. It puts one in mind of Mick Schumacher's exploits in 2022, where a series of crashes soaked up Haas' repair budget for the season. Williams might not be able to afford to exert too much patience.

7. Tsunoda is continuing to show up Ricciardo

Tsunoda is the man of the moment for RB, and that is terrible news for Ricciardo

Tsunoda is the man of the moment for RB, and that is terrible news for Ricciardo

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Yuki Tsunoda had never scored a point at the Japanese GP before, but he ended that run in this year's event with a stand-out drive to claim 10th place. A series of brilliant overtakes around the outside of Turn 6 proved to be the flagship in his progress, ensuring he was able to convert his grid position into a valuable point.
This was helped by swift work from RB's pitcrew, which took him from the back of a swollen midfield scrap over the final point to the front with a service worthy of a Kwik Fit fitter. Having pulled into the box behind the likes of Kevin Magnussen, Valtteri Bottas, and Sargeant, Tsunoda emerged ahead of them and then caught Nico Hulkenberg.
Two weeks ago, Red Bull principal Christian Horner brushed away a question about Tsunoda and instead used the opportunity to wax lyrical about Sainz. Praise of the Spaniard was very much earned, but Red Bull should not simply ignore the progress that Tsunoda has made this season. And, with each point that Tsunoda scores, an extra nail is being driven into Ricciardo's Red Bull-branded coffin as the Australian drifts further away from a potential call-up to the senior team.

8. McLaren reshuffles technical pack again as Sanchez departs

The new McLaren leadership introduced last year is already being changed up

The new McLaren leadership introduced last year is already being changed up

Photo by: McLaren

In its bid to rejoin the front of the F1 pack on a regular basis after over a decade away, McLaren made a series of hires over 2023 to bolster its technical team. Rob Marshall was brought to Woking from Red Bull, while ex-Ferrari man David Sanchez was hired to head up the performance and concept department of McLaren's three-pronged engineering team. The Frenchman's signing was tied up in February last year, offering ample opportunity for him to prune his petunias on a lengthy gardening leave.
Finally assuming his new post at the start of 2024, Sanchez has left the team after just three months. Team principal Andrea Stella had assumed his role in the interim over last season, and will do so again until a suitable replacement can be found. 
It appears that, in the 11 months between hiring and joining, Sanchez's job specification drifted away significantly from what it had started out as during McLaren's continued evolution. "It became apparent that the role, responsibilities, and ambitions associated with David’s position did not align with our original expectations when he agreed to join us in February 2023," Stella revealed in a McLaren release.
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"Recognising this misalignment, both David and I agreed that it would be best to part ways now, so to enable him to pursue other opportunities that will better leverage the full scale and breadth of his remarkable skillset."

9. Is Sebastian Vettel toying with the idea of a comeback?

Is Vettel buzzing to get back into the F1 fold?

Is Vettel buzzing to get back into the F1 fold?

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel has been doing the rounds on UK news outlets in recent weeks, punctuated by a test in Porsche's 963 LMDh machinery, and it seems to suggest that the German might be on the comeback trail in some form of racing. After hanging up his helmet at the end of 2022 after two years with Aston Martin, Vettel has been quietly pursuing his environmental interests - making a cameo at last year's Japanese GP to build bee hives with the drivers.
Aside from that, his only motorsport-based exploits have been in promoting his Race Without Trace campaign, lobbying for more sustainable and carbon neutral fuels to break into mainstream racing categories. Speaking to RTL last month, Vettel stated that "I still have a few plans, hopefully in the context of Formula 1 and also this year. It remains to be seen whether that will happen." That doesn't necessarily mean he's hunting around for an F1 seat, especially as he followed that by stating "I didn't know whether I would reach a point where I would say: I want to go back. At the moment, I haven't reached that point either."
But Vettel remains in close contact with Mercedes boss Wolff. The team still has yet to decide on a replacement for the Ferrari-bound Lewis Hamilton, and is assessing youngster Andrea Kimi Antonelli in a series of tests to determine whether the Italian can realistically make the step up for 2025. Sainz is also an option, but he may not wish to wait for Antonelli's fate to be decided. Vettel can wait, however - and if he decides he'd like to return, he may yet throw his hat into the Mercedes ring...

10. Returning China round might go with the grain

When F1 last raced in China, Verstappen had only five wins to his name

When F1 last raced in China, Verstappen had only five wins to his name

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

It's been five years since China graced the F1 calendar; its Shanghai circuit is a popular one among the drivers, but since its last appearance in 2019 owing to the impact of COVID-19 it has been resurfaced. Allied to the introduction of the current generation of cars, it'll be something of an unknown quantity.
Practice will be limited as China will host a sprint weekend, giving the teams little opportunity to sniff out the quirks of the new track surface. Pirelli has opted for the C2-C3-C4 tyres and, if conditions are not particularly warm in Shanghai, graining may well rear its head again after proving a significant point of interest in Australia.
"In the past, we had not severe graining, but we had light graining. So yes, could be a possibility," said Pirelli chief engineer Simone Berra. “I expect some graining, especially on C3 and C4; for the C2 I expect more resilience compared to the C3 and C4, so we should be covered. Let's say, in that case, a high wear rate in case of graining.”
This might give Ferrari a chance to double its victory tally in the event that Red Bull is unable to make significant strides relative to its efforts in Melbourne, but more will be revealed when Pirelli assesses the circuit this week.
Can anyone close the gap to Red Bull in China?

Can anyone close the gap to Red Bull in China?

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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