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Why Ferrari might not repeat Melbourne F1 form in Japan

Can the Ferrari Formula 1 team carry its Melbourne-winning momentum into this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix?

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Fans around the world would like to see a close battle between Ferrari and Red Bull, especially after Carlos Sainz won the Australian Grand Prix in the wake of Max Verstappen’s early retirement, and we didn’t get to see what would have happened in a straight fight.

The reality could well be that on Honda’s home ground, Red Bull will once again be a step ahead and that Maranello’s challenge for victories on merit may have to wait until a more suitable circuit comes around.

However, Ferrari will certainly be better off relative to the world champion team than it was at Suzuka back in September. The SF-24 is a better and more consistent car overall than its predecessor and, in particular, it has displayed improved performance on the high-speed style corners that are a key feature of the track.

Sainz is keeping his feet on the ground, and he concedes that the team might have been flattered by the form it displayed in Melbourne.

“It's true to say that in Australia, we looked very strong,” said the Spaniard. “But normally in these cases, you just need to get the average of the first three races.

“And the average is we're still a couple of tenths off the Red Bull and we need probably an upgrade, especially in tracks like Suzuka, to fight them.

“The job that the team has done this year is extremely good, because the car is a very good step forward. It's just we need more of the same if we want to go for the wins at tracks like maybe Japan.

“There is no big upgrade coming here. We have a very small thing in the car at the rear. But it will come later in the season and I hope that is another good step in the same direction.”

Some observers have suggested that Suzuka will be an important test of the pecking order as a “normal” track with a good combination of fast and slow corners, after the three opening events at venues that each have their own particular quirks.

However, Charles Leclerc has downplayed that view, indicating that all tracks matter when it comes to judging a car’s true potential.

Leclerc believes that Red Bull will once again have a clear advantage in Japan, citing a specific factor that played into Ferrari’s hands in Melbourne, and perhaps flattered the team that weekend.

"For now with what we know I would expect Red Bull to still have the upper hand this weekend, especially coming to race day,” he says. “We have a particular strength at tracks where front graining is a thing.

“In Australia, it was the case two weeks ago and there we were very strong coming to race day. This weekend it's less a case of front graining, but more overall degradation. So Red Bull will get back to where they were before that.

If there's an opportunity like in Australia, we need to be here to take it

Charles Leclerc

“However, it's a very important part of the season, where we need to maximise all the points that we can, which we have done. Because if we look at the first three races, I don't think that being only four points behind Red Bull represents our true performance.

“Yes, we are closer than what we were in the past. But we've done a particularly good job at maximising what we have at the moment.

“And until the upgrades, which I hope will put us in a better position to fight them regularly on the Sunday, we need to bring as many points home as possible. And that's why I think our start of the season is positive for that."

Without the graining issue, Leclerc expects Red Bull to regain its advantage in Japan.

“I will expect to have a more normal weekend here, where in the race Red Bull still has the upper hand,” he says.

“However, if there's an opportunity like in Australia, we need to be here to take it. But we should be closer than what we have seen last year, for sure.

“Especially in the high-speed, we've worked quite a bit on this year's car. And it's a much more predictable car. Last year, we had quite a lot of inconsistencies, so on that this should go in the right direction in order to close the gap to Red Bull."

That predictability of the SF-24, a more benign car than the 2023 model, will be a very valuable characteristic in Japan. The charge up the hill and through the Esses is the key to a quick lap, and precision is everything.

The aforementioned improvement in high-speed performance relative to 2023 is also cited by Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur as a significant gain that could give the team a boost this weekend.

Whether or not it’s enough to put Ferrari into the same ballpark as Red Bull remains to be seen, but he’s optimistic.

“Last year we didn't perform very well,” the Frenchman admits. “But on these kinds of corners, very high-speed corners, we are in better shape than one year ago. And if you have a look at the first three events it was very, very tight.

“We are speaking about one or two-tenths of a second a lap. It means that everything is open.”

The specifics of the car’s characteristics aside, Ferrari has a less tangible advantage this weekend, as the team arrives still riding the wave of optimism that the Melbourne victory created. That sort of collective confidence can only help with things like making bold strategy calls.

“It will be difficult, but it's open, and it's a good motivation, the fact that we won last week,” says Vasseur.

“It's also the push for everybody in the team: for Carlos because it's a very good start to the season, for Charles because he wants to come back.

“For everybody, it’s a good prize at the beginning, and we are going in the right direction and I hope that we perform in Japan this weekend."

After the departing Sainz scored the team’s last two victories in Singapore and Melbourne – indeed, the only non-Red Bull wins since 2022 – long-term Ferrari man Leclerc could do with success in his own right.

"I will lie and say that I'm happy with that,” he says of twice losing out to his team-mate. “Wins are important, points at the end of the season, even more so. I want Ferrari winning as soon as possible. Carlos has done an amazing job in winning, and now it's up to me to react, and hopefully win the next one.

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“That's the target, and I'm working flat out for that. And, at the end of the day, in F1 very quickly people tend to forget, and everything is based on the last race. But if I look at my last eight, nine races, they've been at a very good level.

“In most of those races, it was not possible to win, but it's up to me to be there whenever there's the opportunity that arises.

“And the fact is that I haven't been in Singapore and in any other race, but I'll keep pushing. However, the fact that Carlos won't be in Ferrari next year doesn't add pressure to try and win."

Watch: F1 2024 Japanese Grand Prix Preview - Everything You Need To Know

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