Max Verstappen won the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix at a canter, commanding demonstrating that Singapore was a one-off as Red Bull also confirmed the 2023 Formula 1 Constructor’s Championship.
The Dutchman’s lead was contested for just two corners before he began to pull away from the McLarens, opening up a large gap as he checked out from the chasing pack behind and went into race management mode by extending his gap to 19 seconds at a comfortable rate.
Behind him, Lando Norris pulled a similar number over Oscar Piastri as McLaren rounded out their first double-podium of the season and Piastri‘s career first. In a similar vein to Red Bull, they ran a largely undisturbed race outside of George Russell‘s doomed one-stop strategy attempt.
Elsewhere, Sergio Perez had a horrific race that saw him collide with Lewis Hamilton on the opening lap, receive a penalty for a safety car infringement and later retire from the race after crashing into Kevin Magnussen into a hairpin turn.
The Red Bull driver briefly re-emerged from the pit lane to serve his time penalty to avoid a grid-drop for the Qatar GP, in a controversial but smart decision by Red Bull.
Winner: Red Bull
It’s a sixth Constructors’ Championship for the Red Bull team and their second in succession. Throughout 2023 they have proven to be so quick that, with the exception of Singapore, nobody has been able to lay a glove on them.
This was perhaps most emphasised at the Canadian GP when Verstappen only won by nine seconds and there was a buzz in the paddock about Aston Martin having apparently caught up.
Not just resting on their laurels with a fast car, the team is operationally perfect. There was a slight worry at the start of the season about the reliability of the drive-shafts that caused Verstappen problems in qualifying but beyond that… They nail the set-ups, nail the pit-stops and nail the strategy and it has resulted in a suffocating dominance throughout the 2023 Formula 1 season.
The Japanese GP followed a similar pattern for the Milton Keynes team, and they thoroughly deserve their successes this season. Such is the smooth operation of the outfit, the best bet for the chasing pack to catch up might not be their own developments, but Red Bull being held back by further restrictions to development time in 2024.
Loser: Logan Sargeant
The rookie has had a baptism by fire this season. He has been totally bossed by Williams teammate Alex Albon, but not just alongside being off the pace, the American is racking up the crash damage and the latest Grand Prix continued this trend.
Coming out of the final chicane in qualifying, Sargeant lost the rear of his Williams car and slammed into the wall resulting in a pit lane start after the team broke Parc Ferme rules to repair the damage.
He then crashed again in the race, locking up into the hairpin and sending Valtteri Bottas into a spin, before retiring with collision damage on Lap 22.
The 22-year-old is unconfirmed for 2024 and with the pressure racking up the best thing to come out of the weekend for him might be that Liam Lawson ruled himself out of a Williams drive for next year, but Felipe Drugovich is said to be waiting in the wings and with a lot of cash to boot too.
Winner: Max Verstappen
Red Bull and Verstappen compliment each other perfectly and the Japanese GP was no exception to the rule.
Leading FP1, FP2 and FP3, the Dutchman and his RB19 went on to take pole position by almost six tenths from Piastri in second and after the lights went out, he dropped everyone to have another lonely race out-front with nobody to challenge him.
The world champion looked to make a point after a troubling Singapore GP and that’s exactly what he did, lapping everyone up to 11th and pulling 19 seconds over Norris. He finished 50 seconds up on last week’s race winner and firmly reminded the whole paddock exactly just who is the boss of the 2023 F1 season.
Verstappen can now claim his third Drivers’ Championship at the Qatar GP from October 6-8.
Loser: Sergio Perez
Where to begin really? Out-qualified by Verstappen by over seven tenths, Perez lined-up fifth on the grid in a car that has taken 12 pole positions in 2023 and his race didn’t get any better.
As the cars barrelled down towards Turn 1, Perez had contact with Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz resulting in front-wing endplate damage that forced him to pit at the end of the early laps.
With his race plan already out of the window, Perez was reported by Fernando Alonso for overtaking during safety car conditions. He then later slammed into Magnussen by trying an ambitious move into the Turn 11 hairpin after the Haas was frustratingly remaining ahead of the Red Bull driver prompting him to retire on Lap 15 without serving his time penalty. He did later re-emerge to do so.
Now closer to Lance Stroll in the standings than his teammate, Perez can formally lose contention of the championship in Qatar but his two worries should be that Hamilton is now 33 points behind him in the race for second in the Driver Standings, and of his future at the team and possibly F1 after another underwhelming weekend.
Back-to-back podiums for the team, who have now recorded five in their last seven races, including a career first for the rookie Piastri.
McLaren were effectively unchallenged by Ferrari and Mercedes at Suzuka, which was probably their calmest of the year with Piastri finishing over seven seconds ahead of Charles Leclerc, with Norris a further 17s up the road from his teammate.
Apart from the obvious success of the double podium, several other good things happened such as: Piastri out-qualifying Norris showing that he up there with the Briton’s level of pace, Piastri demonstrating that he could step up with the latest upgrades and confirmation that those upgrades have worked on a normal track.
Once again, McLaren have slapped an upgrade on their package and it has immediately worked which shows serious potential for their future ideas when they can properly maximise their new wind tunnel, budget and time development advantages over the teams that will finish ahead of them.
Qatar has the potential to be another promising race for the team thanks to its plethora of high speed corners, but the Japanese GP might be the coming-of-age moment for Zak Brown‘s McLaren era as they look to get back to the levels of competitiveness that has given them a historic F1 legacy.
Mercedes didn’t anticipate being particularly competitive at Suzuka due to it being similar in profile to Silverstone where they were third fastest, but finishing 30 seconds down on Norris probably wasn’t within their expectations.
Furthermore, it appears that the team may have lost their one saving grace of the W14 – being good on tyre management – as their rate of degradation and race strategy fell in-line with the rest of the field.
Add to that, tensions between their drivers flaring up after the pair almost crashed and bickered at each other via proxy on the radio, it was not a good weekend.
As Mercedes told Hamilton to wait behind Russell with a fast Sainz bearing down on them, it was Toto Wolff who eventually made the call to switch the cars.
‘That’s fine, right?’, I hear you ask, ‘He’s the team principal after all.’
Yes, but Wolff wasn’t even there. He’s recovering from surgery in Austria and had left the governance of the team to Jerome D’Ambrosio and Bradley Lord.
For the eight-time Constructors’ Champions, it was a very scruffy weekend with a difficult car, difficult decisions and frustrations with their drivers. One to forget as they look to get back on track in Qatar.