Japanese GP unknowns set to create opportunities as Red Bull might not dominate

Red Bull might not have it all their own way at the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka

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Red Bull have locked out the front row of the grid for the first time in over a year at the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix and there is a sense that a largely processional race could take place on Sunday.

Max Verstappen has won the last two races at Suzuka, both in dominant fashion, and he will have Sergio Perez alongside him with a point to prove after a disappointing Australia.

Third-placed Lando Norris is targeting a repeat of his Japan podium from six months ago then comes fourth-placed Carlos Sainz, who is in brilliant form and Ferrari’s race pace in practice raised a few eyebrows.

Ferrari and Mercedes look strong

Second practice is typically when we see race simulations to get an idea of who will be quick in the Grand Prix. However, light rain on Friday afternoon at Suzuka meant the session was pretty much meaningless.

Instead, final practice saw the teams cram in a long run and Mercedes and Ferrari had very fast, consistent times, better than Red Bull‘s.

Of course, we don’t know about fuel levels and engine modes but Red Bull were forced to make changes after FP3, such was their lack of pace on the long runs.

Max Verstappen of Red Bull during qualifying for 2024 Japanese Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Max Verstappen of Red Bull during qualifying for 2024 Japanese Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

It didn’t affect their qualifying pace as we saw on Saturday but if final practice was accurate, Red Bull will not have it all their own way in the Japanese GP.

“I haven’t been happy with my long runs,” said Verstappen. “I think the pace wasn’t what I would have liked, so it’s a bit of a question mark going into Sunday because looking at the long runs, especially Ferrari, they look very comfortable.

“Maybe they were not so quick over one lap, but they were definitely fast in the long run. So we’ll have to wait and see how that will evolve in the race.”

Ferrari took an impressive 1-2 at the Australian GP and have made big gains with tyre wear since last season’s summer break.

It could be that we see a reverse of what we are used to in recent years – Ferrari quick on Sundays instead of Saturdays.

“I cannot look inside the Ferrari garage to see why that is,” continued Verstappen. “But it’s quite obvious that then in the long run they seem quite competitive.

“From our side, I have some ideas of what we have to look into to make Sunday better, and that’s also what we already changed after FP3. So hopefully that will be better.

“I mean, our race place is still not too bad, but it’s not how I have been feeling in some of the races this year, last year, as comfortable, let’s say, like that. But hopefully with the changes that we made, it will be better.”

Max Verstappen of Red Bull celebrates pole position after qualifying for the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Max Verstappen of Red Bull celebrates pole position after qualifying for the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

What if Perez gets the jump on Verstappen?

This would be a fascinating scenario because Suzuka is a very difficult track to overtake at, with just one DRS zone and consecutive high-speed corners in Sector 1, which makes it hard to follow.

The fast flick that’s Turn 1, that immediately leads into Turn 2, is a heart in your mouth moment off the start if you are side by side.

If Perez gets a better jump off the line, he will have the inside and maybe we will see him get his elbows out on Verstappen.

Would Red Bull use team orders? Probably not. Verstappen would have to overtake Perez on track but the Mexican would also have pit priority if he is leading before the first round of pit stops.

We have seen very few inter-team on-track battles between Verstappen and Perez since the became teammates in 2021, so maybe it’s time for last year’s runner-up to throw a few punches against three reigning world champion.

“I think we have been really close all weekend, all the way through qualifying as well,” said Perez. “When you are in that little margins, anything can make a difference.

“I didn’t have a great exit opening up the lap, so probably that could have been the difference, you know, but I think we are in a good position for the race.

“I think our long-run pace hasn’t been that strong, but we worked quite a bit, so hopefully on Sunday we will be able to be strong.”

Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez of Red Bull celebrate after qualifying for the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez of Red Bull celebrate after qualifying for the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Multiple pit stops expected

The 2023 Japanese GP saw nearly all of the front-runners execute a two-stop strategy and that’s expected to be the case again on Sunday.

There are a mix if tyres though in the top 10 as the Ferraris and Red Bulls have two sets of mediums and one hard, whereas the McLarens and Mercedes have two sets of hards and one medium.

Then you have Fernando Alonso in fifth, who has one new hard, one new medium and a fresh soft. We are going to see a mix of tyres and if the hard becomes the favoured tyre, Red Bull and Ferrari could be under big pressure.

The undercut is powerful due to the relatively high tyre wear, so if the field is tightly bunched, being aggressive is the way forward, just like we saw in Melbourne when Charles Leclerc undercut Norris.

We should say everyone start on the medium tyres, then it’s a question of do you use another set of mediums or go for hards in the middle stint. We could see teams splitting strategies and maybe even trying a risky one-stop, which will leave you vulnerable at the end.

Lewis Hamilton is in a much happier mood this weekend, even though he only qualified seventh. It’s the first time he’s outqualified teammate George Russell though and Mercedes could spring a surprise on Sunday if there practice race pace is anything to go by.

“It’s been night and day difference over the weekend so far just in terms of how comfortable I felt in the car,” said Hamilton.

“I think we did a really good job this past week, the analysis everyone has done at the factory just to try and understand how we can get the car in the sweet spot.

“The car’s been much nicer to drive this weekend and particularly at a track like this where you need a nice balance, this is the nicest it’s felt over the last three years.”

So with that, be sure and join the Total Motorsport live blog for the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix and follow all the action from Suzuka.

John Smith
John Smithhttps://total-motorsport.com
Editor at Total-Motorsport.com and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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