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What we learned from Friday F1 practice at the 2024 Japanese GP

The weather intervened to thwart run plans in second practice for Formula 1's Japanese Grand Prix, and heighten the significance of FP1's showings in which Ferrari looked strong. While factors suggest Red Bull has more pace in hand, conditions may not conspire to make Suzuka another Max Verstappen steamrollering of the field

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Max Verstappen and Red Bull led the way in opening practice for Formula 1’s 2024 Japanese Grand Prix, but this was far from a repeat affair of the opening day from the 2023 event at Suzuka just six months ago.

This time, in the cooler April climate, rain intervened to limit running massively in FP2, while Red Bull was left eyeing Charles Leclerc’s surprise early long-run times from FP1 with something approaching concern.

It remains far too early to tell if Ferrari does really stand a chance of repeating its Australia glory, but this development has added a clear note of intrigue to an event many had expected to be a Red Bull walkover given how good it and Verstappen were here in 2023.

The story of the day

Most of Friday’s early focus had gone on Red Bull’s cockpit-mounted cooling updates, plus the sidepod upgrades Aston Martin has so far only put on Lance Stroll’s AMR23. The green team placed a massive aerodynamic load measuring rake behind his rear wheels early in FP1, only for a part of it to break and hang loose after a few minutes of running.

Then, just as he did following Red Bull’s 2023 Singapore GP defeat, Verstappen led the way in FP1. But this time at Suzuka it was in a rather different fashion.

For a start, Sergio Perez ended up 0.181s adrift in second, with Melbourne winner Carlos Sainz also getting within 0.213s of the world champion’s leading time. At this stage in 2023 here, Verstappen had a commanding 0.626s margin over Sainz when topping FP1.

Verstappen's advantage in FP1 was not as great as it had been last year, before he sat out the weather-blighted FP2

Verstappen's advantage in FP1 was not as great as it had been last year, before he sat out the weather-blighted FP2

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

But the bigger differences came in how the opening session played out once the early installation running on the hard and medium tyres was completed. FP1 was pretty much split into two parts by Logan Sargeant’s costly Dunlop Curve shunt, just as Hamilton had led the way on the switch to soft tyres and temporarily taken the top spot.

When the rest headed out on softs, Verstappen and Perez carved their way to the leading times, but the Dutchman and Leclerc then switched to long-run data gathering. This isn’t unheard of in FP1, but it is unusual given the run plans the teams enact are rather uniform and reflects the pre-event fears that rain would impact FP2. This, indeed, came to pass.

What precipitation did fall was light – it could hardly be said to be a washout. But enough near constant drizzle came down that no meaningful running could take place.

Some teams, including Red Bull, didn’t want to burn any softs in late FP2 laps that could instead be better deployed in qualifying tomorrow

For most of the second one-hour session, there were no times on the board and indeed only five drivers would go on to post a time – the majority that did emerge right at the end doing so too late to do anything other than positional tours to complete practice start data gathering on the damp grid.

This will be handy info should the rain return on Sunday and the reduced running – which was generally felt to be too dry to make the intermediates work effectively and too wet for the slicks to provide their typical grip levels – was also down to the teams needing to preserve their wet tyre stash for the rest of the weekend. This is four intermediate sets overall and two sets of extreme wets.

Previously, they had three inters sets but were given an extra set if rain hit the opening sessions. This has been removed from the rules for 2024 and so an additional premium on preserving wet sets has been added if the forecast indicates more rain might arrive, as is the case this weekend.

The track dried enough by the end of FP2 for Oscar Piastri to break the RB inter-shod post-halfway stranglehold on the top spots. The McLaren driver completed a three flying lap stint in the dying minutes to take the FP2 benchmark from Yuki Tsunoda’s inters best of 1m40.946s. He improved from 1m39.105s to 1m34.725s by the chequered flag.

Switching to slicks sooner than the rest helped Piastri to snare top spot in FP2

Switching to slicks sooner than the rest helped Piastri to snare top spot in FP2

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Hamilton and Leclerc also popped in single late soft tyre times, which put them 0.501s and 4.035s off Piastri in second and third in the very small classification. The Mercedes driver’s time should be considered impressive because it came with just one lap of preparation running in the cool, slippery conditions compared to the three tyre-heating tours logged aboard the McLaren.

Some teams, including Red Bull, didn’t want to burn any softs in late FP2 laps that could instead be better deployed in qualifying tomorrow.

Even before FP2 had commenced, Williams had declared that Sargeant would miss the session entirely due to the repair work needed on all four corners of his FW46 – built around the chassis Alex Albon had already badly damaged in his infamous Melbourne FP1 shunt.

It has also been suggested that Williams lacks enough spares of the front and rear wing endplate updates that it has introduced at Suzuka to mean Sargeant avoids having to revert to older versions for the rest of the weekend.

Limited FP1 long runs the only data available so far

“We're satisfied for the first outing. Leclerc's long run was a bit irritating. Not irritating, but really fast. We'll have to see how much petrol he really has. But apart from that, we're satisfied.”

Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko there, speaking to Austrian broadcaster ORF ahead of FP2 about that late-FP1 high-fuel running completed by the top two in the drivers’ standings so far this year that we touched on earlier. Given what subsequently happened, it’s all there is to go on when it comes to assessing the early potential of 2024’s leading two teams so far at Suzuka.

Verstappen had enough fuel onboard for at least the seven laps he logged – the usual practice caveats about set fuel loads of course applying here – while Leclerc’s stint came in over six laps. Both drivers were running the hard tyres that will be critical for the race here, as there are much lower levels of thermal degradation on the white-walled rubber per Pirelli.

Leclerc's times were an eye-opener for Red Bull

Leclerc's times were an eye-opener for Red Bull

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

What little data there was put down by the pair looks very good, perhaps too good for Ferrari. Leclerc’s average ended up at 1m35.515s once outlier laps were removed, compared to Verstappen’s 1m36.410s in the same situation.

Such a big gap (0.895s) suggests the Ferrari was both lighter overall and in a hotter engine mode – with the FP1 GPS traces showing Sainz gaining on Verstappen through all the straight sections on their fastest overall laps. This is territory where Red Bull is usually king when it comes to the sessions that matter and the trend is that it deploys more conservative engine modes in early practice running.

Post-FP2, Marko said “that Ferrari is pretty quick, but we hope, or we are sure, that the ran less fuel and a higher engine mode today than what we did.” He added: “But they are still very tight to us. The long run was basically only three laps [with the outliers removed], but still those three laps from Leclerc were quite impressive.”

The lower temperatures seem to have made managing thermal degradation easier this time around

At the other two 2024 frontrunning squads, Mercedes and McLaren also squeezed in FP1 long runs – but they diverged from Red Bull and Ferrari on tyre choice. McLaren stuck to the mediums and produced a best average of 1m34.016s (via Lando Norris over 10 laps) that did rather yo-yo about the 1m33s and 1m34s bracket.

At Mercedes, which in FP1 was making regular set-up adjustment experiments to help better balance tyre temperatures, the higher-fuel running was done on the softs. Its best average – a 1m36.461s – came from Russell and that had quite a steep drop off over seven laps from the 1m35s to the 1m37s.

Pirelli reckons the colder April conditions mean the C3 softs could now be a race consideration compared to what occurred in the hot 2023 Suzuka event because it provides such a good early grip gain. At least for drivers perhaps out of position in qualifying and hoping to make early gains before the thermal degradation kicks in on this abrasive surface in what is still expected to be a two-stop race.

But, and this might just end up being critical for Ferrari on Sunday, the lower temperatures seem to have made managing thermal degradation easier this time around. That, in theory, reduces what has long been Red Bull’s vital race performance differentiator.

Could colder temperatures aid Ferrari's thermal degradation deficit to Red Bull?

Could colder temperatures aid Ferrari's thermal degradation deficit to Red Bull?

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

What they said:

Max Verstappen: “It was a good start for us today. The bounce wasn’t too far out and I felt comfortable with the car. There are still a few things to try and look at but, overall, it was a good FP1. Of course, in FP2 we couldn’t do anything, which was a shame as this means that we don’t know the long run pace, but we can’t do anything about the weather. In general, it looks like everyone is a bit closer compared to last year and I don’t expect the same kind of gaps here at this track. There are a few things that we still want to look at tomorrow, but overall I felt quite happy with what we had and the laps that we did.”

Charles Leclerc: “It was a mixed day. In FP1, we identified a few things we needed to work on in terms of set-up. But then, we barely ran in FP2 and so we couldn't find the answers we were looking for over a flying lap, so we will have to focus on that tomorrow morning to be ready for qualifying.”

Lewis Hamilton: “[FP1] was a great session, it was a really good session for us. It was the best session that we've had this year, it's the best the car has felt this year so far. So, so far really positive. And I was really excited because this is a circuit that every driver loves to drive. In the last couple of years, we've had a really difficult car and a difficult balance to drive here. And given the difficult last few races, we've had great works been done this past week, and we just seem to have hit the ground a bit more in a sweeter spot. So I haven't really made any changes since.”

Lando Norris: “I think we’re in a reasonable place with the car, so I'm confident we can go into tomorrow and get the final feeling before we head into qualifying. We’ll work hard to put ourselves into a competitive position.”

Hamilton believes Mercedes is in the best position it has been on a Friday all year

Hamilton believes Mercedes is in the best position it has been on a Friday all year

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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