Japanese GP Takeaways: Looking back on blossoming Suzuka

Japanese GP Takeaways: Cherry blossoms at Suzuka

Japanese GP Takeaways: Looking back on blossoming Suzuka

The 2024 Japanese Grand Prix was moved forward on this year’s Formula 1 calendar and instead of monsoons, we had cherry blossoms, a welcome change.

And while the weather was the driver behind having the race at Suzuka in Spring, the rain insisted on having its say, and as such the second free practice session was useless with no running which gave the teams a challenge to deal with tyre degradation in the race, a matter that is usually dealt with using data collected from long runs in FP2.

The sun shining ahead of the race delivered a curve ball for the teams as tyre degradation was atrocious at the start of the race, and it wasn’t until the clouds appeared and the track cooled down a bit, that the tyres started working properly.

Other than that, there wasn’t a lot of change compared to the race in 2023. Max Verstappen won by almost the same margin, but this time it was Sergio Perez who was second, as the Ferraris chased the Bulls.

McLaren ended up with disappointment despite earlier promise, while Mercedes endured another torrid weekend leaving Lewis Hamilton in a bad mood having to go through the ignominy of moving aside for George Russell during the race after outqualifying him one day earlier.

Here are our Takeaways from the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix.

Another Red Bull one-two

SUZUKA, JAPAN - APRIL 07: Race winner Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing and Second placed Sergio Perez of Mexico and Oracle Red Bull Racing celebrate in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka International Racing Course on April 07, 2024 in Suzuka, Japan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

After Verstappen’s DNF and Perez’s fifth in the Australian Grand Prix, Red Bull and both their drivers bounced back in style in Japan.

Verstappen simply repeated what he did there last year – dominating after his disastrous 2023 Singapore Grand Prix – and while Perez had one of his worst race weekends at Suzuka last year, he shone this time around.

The Mexican was only 0.066s off Verstappen’s pole time in qualifying. In the race he drove impressively to recover from an early setback as he was undercut by McLaren’s Lando Norris due to early struggles with tyre wear.

While Verstappen was the only driver to be reckoned with in 2023 – he still is in 2024 – but Perez seems to have taken a huge step forward this year as he is enjoying his RB20 more than the RB19 and – aside from the race in Australia – was up there behind his teammate in all the other races so far delivering exactly what Red Bull want of him.

The RB20 is a radically changed car for Red Bull and a dominant one as well, and while the team have not dialled it up to the max yet. It may not hold the same advantage over its rivals as in 2023, but it is worth keeping in mind that the gap should grow as they get to know the car and develop it more, but in all cases, there is nothing to say Verstappen will not win his fourth F1 Title this year.

Three one-twos in four races is simply an ominous sign from the reigning Champions to their rivals, and as I said in my previous takeaways, we can only hope that Ferrari bothers them more often than not.

Ferrari’s race at Suzuka

Ferrari yet again showed that they are firmly the second team behind Red Bull, Carlos Sainz taking third place behind the two Red Bull, while Charles Leclerc was fourth.

Sainz delivered another solid weekend, outqualifying and out-racing Leclerc for the second weekend in a row as the latter once again messed up his Saturday afternoon.

In a track like Suzuka, one would’ve expected Leclerc to outqualify Sainz, but it seems the Monegasque is struggling to prepare his tyres properly in qualifying as the Ferrari SF-24 seems to be a better race car now compared to its predecessor which was a great qualifier. That means the new car doesn’t turn on it tyres as fast as the old one.

While Sainz seems to have a good understanding of the SF-24’s treatment of tyres, Leclerc admitted he is yet to do the same and vowed to focus on that aspect of his driving in the coming races starting with China.

As for the Ferrari pit wall, they were faultless this time as well using their car’s better race pace to help Sainz jump Lando Norris for the final step of the podium while catapulting Leclerc from eighth on the grid to fourth after a one-stop strategy which saw Leclerc deliver an impressive first stint to make it work.

Ferrari are yet to challenge Red Bull in terms of pure pace, but they have definitely improved and should be proud with their race execution.

McLaren and Mercedes disappoint again

On paper, McLaren had an advantage in the first fast-flowing sector at Suzuka that suits the strengths of their MCL38, and indeed Norris showed that by qualifying third.

However, the Papaya cars did not have enough juice to protect Norris’ position during the race, while Oscar Piastri was anonymous in the other car. He qualified sixth and finished eighth.

Piastri lost seventh place in the final part of the race when under attack from Russell, he made a mistake and couldn’t capitalize on the assistance of Fernando Alonso who was keeping him in his DRS to help him defend from the #63 Mercedes, the Spaniard trying to avoid a late race attack on his sixth position.

As for Mercedes, they said they had some new stuff to try with their W15 and for that Toto Wolff decided to travel to Suzuka after initially planning to stay behind, but his trip was in vain.

Mercedes’ form fluctuated again, Hamilton saying the car was in a good window at the start, then in the final practice their form was encouraging only to drop back in qualifying as the seven-time F1 Champion was seventh, Russell ninth.

At the end of the race their positions swapped, Hamilton suffering from understeer and bad tyre degradation as well as damage which meant he was ordered to let Russell through at some point.

In the end, Mercedes were beaten by Alonso in the Aston Martin and have a one-point advantage over their power unit customers in the Constructors’ Championship, which would’ve been a different story had Lance Stroll not been eliminated in Q1 ultimately failing to score points on race day.

Tough days ahead for Mercedes and some serious head-scratching to do.

Japanese GP Quick Hits

  • As much as it seems boring to point this out again, the Japanese GP shed light once more on Aston Martin’s conundrum. While Alonso got on with the new upgrade package after only one hour of practice, Stroll qualified 16th even though he had double that time with it. Alonso is more experienced no doubt, but Stroll is not a rookie anymore.
    Despite Mercedes’ troubles, they are still ahead of Aston Martin in the F1 Constructors’ Standings. Stroll needs to up his game and deliver points, and Lawrence Stroll should really reconsider his unconditional support to his son.
  • Another weekend of pain and humiliation for Williams as they still have no spare chassis with the pit wall having their hearts in their throats every time Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant had a hint of a shunt. Both drivers are understandably scared to crash which puts more pressure on them and makes them more error-prone, something Sargeant in particular can do without.
    Williams will send back Albon’s crashed car to Grove to inspect and fix it for China while the wait for the spare chassis continues till Miami.
  • Daniel Ricciardo was trounced again by Yuki Tsunoda, albeit by a smaller margin. But on a track where experience counts, it was supposed to be the other way around.
    Ricciardo’s first lap crash saved him from further embarrassment at the hands of his teammate who went on to score points yet again delivering some impressive overtakes on his way.
  • Sauber finally found a solution for their pit stop woes and that was to execute them in a painfully slow manner… Wow!

Next is the Chinese Grand Prix which will be the first Sprint weekend this season.