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What we learned from Friday practice at F1's 2022 Japanese GP

A soaking wet Friday has shaken up the Formula 1 order ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix, with an unexpected Mercedes 1-2 headed by George Russell. But with conditions set to be changeable throughout the weekend, could the unknown factors be pivotal come Sunday at Suzuka?

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Two sodden practice sessions ahead of the returning Japanese Grand Prix heavily disguised the true competitive order at Suzuka. However, while it was Mercedes that set the pace as George Russell led Lewis Hamilton, enough evidence suggests Max Verstappen is keeping plenty in reserve for the dry as the Red Bull ace seeks to wrap up his second Formula 1 world title this weekend.

The story of the day

That FP1 and FP2 took place at all was somewhat unexpected given a washout was forecast and the gloomy skies were still throwing it down in the 30 minutes leading up to the first session. But ahead they went, even if there was far less track activity than usual for a Friday.

Departing Alpine driver Fernando Alonso was the somewhat unexpected pacesetter from the first hour. After the track dried to a degree to pave the way for intermediate-tyre runs, he cleared the 3.6 miles in 1m42.248s to sit top of the class. And conditions worsening in the final quarter of an hour left him there, as the two-time champion ended up 0.315s clear of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc. Meanwhile, Verstappen mustered sixth as Hamilton ran to an anonymous 13th and Russell was way down in 18th with only four laps chalked.

Naturally, the treacherous track caught one or two out. The biggest casualty was Mick Schumacher, who aquaplaned in the Haas on a much slower in-lap to ping into the wall and crumple both front corners. The German, who is fighting for his F1 future after splitting the car in two at Jeddah and Monaco, wouldn’t be seen again as a chassis change was required.

The Silver Arrows came to the fore in FP2, which was extended to 90 minutes to fit a Pirelli 2023-spec tyre test. However, with the mule rubber a slick compound, that was canned and left the few who completed representative long-run stints to ply their trade on inters.

Russell, the first of the field to switch from full wets to the green-walled rubber in second practice, kept whittling away at his times to settle on a 1m41.935s - leading Hamilton by 0.235s. Verstappen ran to third, albeit 0.851s adrift as Singapore GP winner Sergio Perez was fourth.

Russell led a Mercedes 1-2 in second practice at the Japanese GP

Russell led a Mercedes 1-2 in second practice at the Japanese GP

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

After a late glory run on fresh inters to assess set-up tweaks, Kevin Magnussen clocked fifth ahead of fastest Ferrari Carlos Sainz. Leclerc, though, buzzed the timing line down in 11th after a trip through the gravel at the hairpin on his out-lap. To his credit, he kept the Ferrari rolling to rejoin the track as the sessions were completed without a red flag.

Overall FP2 order

Pos Driver Team Time  Gap
1 Russell Mercedes 1m41.935s  
2 Verstappen Red Bull 1m42.786s +0.851s
3 Magnussen Haas 1m43.187s +1.252s
4 Sainz Ferrari 1m43.204s +1.269s
5 Alonso Alpine 1m43.533s +1.598s
6 Bottas Alfa Romeo 1m43.733s +1.798s
7 Latifi Williams 1m44.962s +3.027s
8 Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1m45.257s +3.322s
9 Vettel Aston Martin 1m45.261s +3.326s
10 Norris McLaren 1m45.885s +3.950s

How Russell ended up quickest on day one

The Mercedes W13 has by no means set the world alight this season and remains on course to be the first Three-Pointed Star creation not to win a grand prix since 2011. Of its many flaws, a persistent headache has been the car’s struggle to generate sufficient heat to excite its front tyres. That rears its head in the dry, let alone on a cold, soggy track.

Mercedes was one of six teams to not turn in a representative race stint over the 90 minutes across either of its drivers, plus the forecast for a dry qualifying session, its pace might not transpose neatly over to a front-row grid position or even supremacy on Sunday

While changing the suspension geometry to better control how the rubber is pressed into the asphalt might represent a more lasting fix, the temporary set-up tweaks made by the team between FP1 and FP2 was enough to bring Russell to the fore. Naturally, the slippery conditions went some way to delivering a somewhat jumbled up order. Nevertheless, the Mercedes look convincingly in the ballpark with Red Bull and Ferrari so far.

Russell was also able to land minor bragging rights for setting the pace in FP2 because of his and the team’s good timing. Unlike Verstappen, who opted to push a set of inters as far as they would go, the Brit pitted for a fresh set of boots and quickly banged in two improved times to light up the timing screens. Then, somewhat perversely, the conditions drying a little appeared to hurt the lap times. As the surface moved from wet to greasy to limit the amount of standing water the inters could clear, the times fell away to leave Russell on top.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

So, although there wasn’t the conventional FP2 switch to lower engine modes and high fuel as per to slow the pace and indicate race stint simulations, no one could match the Mercs.

However, that doesn’t quite tell the full story. With Mercedes one of six teams to not turn in a representative race stint over the 90 minutes across either of its drivers, plus the forecast for a dry qualifying session, its pace might not transpose neatly over to a front-row grid position or even supremacy on Sunday.

Intermediate tyre long-run averages

Pos Team Time Stint
1 Ferrari 1m45.570s 5 laps
2 Red Bull 1m46.683s 12 laps
3 Aston Martin 1m46.766s 10 laps
4 AlphaTauri 1m47.733s 12 laps

What FP2's lessons mean for the first Japanese race since 2019

From the four teams that could stitch together anything like a proper race stint simulation, it appears Sainz’s work was the most competitive. His times averaged out at 1m45.57s, according to Autosport's calculations, to suggest he has a mighty 1s advantage over the long-run pace of Verstappen.

That gulf might be exaggerated by the usual practice caveats of contrasting fuel loads and engine modes. The former is backed up by the Spaniard turning in only a five-lap run excluding in- and out-laps. Perez, by contrast, doubled that. Verstappen ran for a full 12 laps. And as mentioned above, the Red Bulls decided to pound round on one set of tyres whereas Sainz could make use of fresh inters to majorly contribute to that impressive pace.

With qualifying set to run in the dry, the lighter RB18 that has emerged after the summer break is still expected to be the benchmark. Especially at a track which demands high downforce, wrecks the tyres and has the notable top-speed runs into 130R and down the main straight. Those elements all appear to favour the Red Bull and the high-end punch of its rebadged Honda engine.

What’s more, while Suzuka is a classic fixture and a permanent track, it is narrow. Hot on the heels of the streets of Marina Bay, two venues that don’t readily promote overtaking follow one after the other. That’s why the Red Bull’s anticipated qualifying pace might come to pay off so handsomely should track position be secured. Just so long as Verstappen doesn’t trigger anti-stall of the line, as he did a week ago.

Sainz displayed impressive race pace in the wet

Sainz displayed impressive race pace in the wet

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

As for what the skies have in store on Sunday, the forecast is still a little too fluid. Earlier in the week, a Spa-style downpour minutes after the chequered flag was anticipated. Now, there’s a greater suggestion that a shower might hit the closing few laps to throw mayhem at the final stint.

As for the bigger picture, though, the leading championship permutation has it that regardless of if Leclerc finishes second on Sunday, a win and bonus point for fastest lap will guarantee Verstappen the crown with four races to spare.

"It’s a bit tricky to know where we are with pace when in the wet, but we did some basic set ups today and not much more than that. We’re almost starting from zero tomorrow in the dry" Max Verstappen

What they say

Russell reckons: “It is always nice to end the day top of the time sheets, and it was a decent improvement from FP1 when we were pretty much at the bottom. The wet conditions today were probably not that representative for the rest of the weekend, but it was a good learning opportunity for the future; it's important to understand things like the tyre crossover from wet to intermediate, and even if that doesn't pay dividends this weekend, it will in the future. I've no idea what to expect tomorrow in the dry - we will be battling for the top six positions, and hopefully we have a shot at something better than that.”

Verstappen voiced: "It was obviously raining a lot today, so the two sessions weren’t very representative of what it will be like during qualifying or the race. We were expecting more rain so it was good that we could go out on track for as long as we did. It’s a bit tricky to know where we are with pace when in the wet, but we did some basic set ups today and not much more than that. We’re almost starting from zero tomorrow in the dry.”

Could rain returning on Sunday throw a curveball for the Japanese GP?

Could rain returning on Sunday throw a curveball for the Japanese GP?

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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