Japanese Grand Prix conclusions: Red Bull’s secret to success and the end of Alonso’s honeymoon?

Oliver Harden
Red Bull celebrate Constructors glory at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen holds a flag with Red Bull team members after winning the Constructors' Championship.

Red Bull secured the F1 Constructors’ Championship with Max Verstappen’s 13th victory of the 2023 season at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Verstappen bounced back from a tough weekend in Singapore to dominate at Suzuka and is now in a position to clinch his third consecutive Drivers’ title at the next round in Qatar. The Dutchman was joined on the podium by McLaren team-mates Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri.

After another bruising weekend for Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez, here are our conclusions from Japan…

Stability the secret of Red Bull’s success

A decade after scooping both titles with Sebastian Vettel and breaking the record for the most consecutive grand prix victories along the way, Red Bull are on the verge of doing the same with Max Verstappen.

When Verstappen secures the 2023 World Championship, almost certainly in Qatar next time out, he will become only the second driver in history to win his first three titles in a single great stride.

The first? Seb. Naturally. One small step for Max, another giant leap for Red Bullkind…

To have achieved such crushing dominance with two drivers across such different eras, yet in such relatively little time, is the greatest reflection of this team, the best in the pit lane even in the years they didn’t have the fastest car and now – at their glorious 2023, RB19 peak – with a convincing case to be remembered as the greatest ever seen in motor racing.

So much in this sport has altered beyond recognition in the 10 years since Vettel’s last title triumph, yet it is remarkable how little at Red Bull has changed. So many of the key faces stood alongside Seb back then are right there behind Max now.

Is it any wonder that in such a stable environment – oozing knowledge, excellence and experience – drivers of the calibre of Vettel and Verstappen have both had the platform to reach up and touch the sky, unlocking such obscene levels of performance and consistency?

Much of the credit must go to Christian Horner, the longest-serving team principal in F1 by some margin, who not only understood implicitly the importance of keeping the key pillars of the team in place but managed to achieve it even when Red Bull were at their lowest.

When, for instance, Ferrari pushed hard – really hard – to lure Adrian Newey in 2014, Horner did whatever it took to keep Adrian around, allowing him to reduce his load at a time he was disillusioned with F1’s restrictive rulebook and instead satisfy his creative urges with America’s Cup yachts and Aston Martin supercars.

Certain other team bosses tend to shout more about their very modern management styles, yet here was one of the most emotionally intelligent moves ever made by an F1 team principal, in effect securing Red Bull’s ticket back to the top – and with it Newey’s everlasting loyalty – even if it took years to materialise.

Compare and contrast the calmness at Red Bull to Mercedes’ brain drain over recent years and the constant churn at Ferrari, where the complaints of Fred Vasseur – the third team boss in five years at Maranello – about the long periods of gardening leave in F1 contracts have become a recurring theme of his first season in charge.

Led by Horner (appointed in 2005) and Newey (2006), as well of the likes of Jonathan Wheatley (2006), Paul Monaghan (2005) and Helmut Marko too, the processes and procedures within Red Bull have never changed – never had to change – over the years.

“It’s a people business,” Horner exclusively told PlanetF1.com’s Sam Cooper earlier this season.

“It’s about getting the right people, creating the right environment, the right culture, giving them the right tools and clear direction.”

In fact, a decade on from Vettel’s final flourish, all that really has changed at Red Bull is the name of the rampant, rampaging racing driver at the heart of it all…

This win was personal for Max Verstappen

It was around this time last year that the first little whispers emerged that Red Bull had breached F1’s cost cap in 2021.

As team and driver closed in on the 2022 World Championships, it gave the opposition ample ammunition to attempt to discredit the achievements of Red Bull and Verstappen – and, in true F1 style, they gladly accepted the opportunity to overshadow the crowning moments.

There was a similar scent in the air in Singapore last weekend as Red Bull’s unbeaten streak finally came to an end at the very race the flexi-wing technical directive just happened to come into effect.

More than a few, both in and out of the paddock, joined the dots and decided for themselves that the technical directive had clearly cut Red Bull off at the knees, resulting in Verstappen’s “shocking experience” as both cars fell in Q2 – yet deep down Max knew the truth.

Before setting off for this double header, Verstappen spent some time in the Red Bull simulator and was already alarmed by just how bad the car felt in Singapore. Then they switched the track to Suzuka and, just like that, it “felt amazing again.”

Was that why Verstappen seemed so strangely relaxed about his record winning run ending last weekend, safe in the knowledge that Singapore was merely a blip and that normal service would soon resume at Suzuka?

He knew it – and it seemed his whole weekend’s work in Japan was all about making sure everybody else knew it too.

Fastest of all by 1.3 seconds on his very first lap of Friday practice, on pole by six tenths with one of the finest single laps ever seen in this sport and victory by a margin of almost 20 seconds – this was Max making a point, this was personal.

An insight into Verstappen’s attitude this weekend came after qualifying as he explained how the post-Singapore noise had driven him to even greater heights at Suzuka: “I was just very fired up to have a good weekend here and make sure that we were strong.”

And his message for those who doubted Red Bull after the last race?

“Go suck on an egg.”

The rest really should have known better than to go poking the bear. Hell hath no fury like Max Verstappen scorned.

Did Daniel Ricciardo’s broken hand save Sergio Perez’s skin for 2024?

As Verstappen and Red Bull continue to paint an era orange together, it must be slightly reassuring for the opposition that the World Champions do not live an entirely peaceful life.

If the other teams have 99 problems, they can take some satisfaction that Red Bull do at least have one – and one that is growing ever larger by the week.

On the day they were crowned World Champions for the sixth time, the team were unable to lose themselves in the celebrations without again having to ask what exactly they’re going to do about Sergio Perez.

Those questions lack the urgency they did just a few weeks ago, especially now AlphaTauri have confirmed Daniel Ricciardo alongside Yuki Tsunoda for 2024, but even if his seat is safe for now Perez increasingly has the look of a dead man walking at Red Bull after another wretched, error-prone weekend.

When he returned to F1 ahead of the Hungarian GP in July, Ricciardo made no secret of his desire to reclaim the Red Bull seat he has always regarded as rightfully his – potentially as soon as next season, even if he never quite admitted it – yet those best-laid plans were ruined by the broken hand he suffered in a practice accident at Zandvoort.

It ended any chance Ricciardo had of stating a case for 2024, letting Perez off the hook at a time his place at Red Bull felt really quite precarious, and robbed us of one of the most fascinating subplots of the second half of this season.

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How, we can only wonder, would Ricciardo have fared in the four races since that crash? Just how much would he have built upon his pre-summer-break sighters at the Hungaroring and Spa?

He may not have been as strikingly impressive in the AlphaTauri as Liam Lawson – who, if there is any justice in the world, will now be picked up by Williams as the hapless Logan Sargeant’s replacement – but the reality is he didn’t need to be.

He only needed to prove himself as a consistent, reliable, hassle-free alternative to Perez and his popularity within Red Bull – plus the memory of his fiercely impressive pace in the RB19 test during his Silverstone test, which convinced them the Daniel of old was still in there somewhere – would have taken care of the rest.

When Perez reflects on his 2023 season over the winter, he will no doubt by proud of the role he played in Red Bull’s latest title triumph and look back fondly at his brilliantly executed victories in Jeddah and Baku.

But the most important day of Sergio’s season? That Friday at Zandvoort and the image of Ricciardo walking away from the wreckage clutching his hand in agony.

That was the moment that saved Sergio’s skin – for now at least.

Lando Norris still holds the upper hand, but Oscar Piastri is the coming man at McLaren

Lando Norris’s conduct over team radio came under scrutiny last month at Zandvoort, where he was criticised for referring to his own race engineer as “stupid” during a stressful race.

McLaren made a point of defending him but Lando himself was embarrassed by it, admitting he sounded like “an idiot” and that his emotional responses in high-pressure situations – the very thing that arguably cost him a maiden victory in Russia two years ago – is a weakness of his.

Over recent races another theme has developed in his radio communications as Oscar Piastri has emerged as an ever-growing threat.

Just three weeks after Norris made the point of moaning that Piastri was holding him up at Monza, shortly before the McLarens collided at the first chicane, he was doing the same as race strategy shook itself out at Suzuka.

Perhaps it is down to his tender age and boyish voice, yet it is always tempting to imagine Norris’s bottom lip trembling beneath his helmet as he whines over the radio – his (increasingly paranoid?) cries providing a stark contrast to Piastri, a Verstappen clone whose heart rate never exceeds three beats per lap.

Norris may have had him covered in the race – Lando’s greater experience revealing itself over the long runs, just as it had in Hungary, as he finished 17 seconds ahead at the chequered flag – but only after Piastri had pipped him to second on the grid on his first-ever visit to Suzuka.

True drivers’ circuits – tracks where the drivers themselves are able to make the difference – are increasingly rare on the F1 calendar, but can it be a mere coincidence that Piastri has now outqualified Norris at both Spa and Suzuka in his rookie season?

And at the other drivers’ track in Monaco, meanwhile, he was only two hundredths away from knocking Norris out of Q2 in just his sixth F1 appearance.

It is these peaks that point to a very promising future for Piastri, a team-mate Norris may soon find himself struggling to contain as his experience grows and his knowledge base expands.

Piastri reacted to his third-place finish – the milestone result he would have already secured at Silverstone were it not for an ill-timed Safety Car – in that permanently, almost amusingly indifferent way of his, raising his trophy with a subtle nod of the head from the podium.

The McLaren drivers make for a beautifully balanced lineup, both with slightly different but complementary skillsets, yet in any battle between fire and ice it is ice that normally wins in the end.

Little wonder Lando is sounding a little more on edge these days…

Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin: Honeymoon over? Or just on hold?

It is now plainly obvious that the Singapore technical directive had no discernible effect on Red Bull, but can the same really be said of Aston Martin?

In the midst of his run of six podium finishes in the opening eight races, Fernando Alonso had targeted Singapore as a race he could realistically win in 2023, but was outpaced by a Haas in qualifying last weekend before enduring his worst Sunday of the season, classified as the last of those to reach the chequered flag.

With the AMR23 only a marginal Q3 car at Suzuka – packed with the long, fast corners in which Aston Martin had struggled at Barcelona, Silverstone and Spa earlier this season – did the first hints of frustration rise to the surface on Sunday?

Alonso’s complaints over team radio centered on the team’s strategy – going too early in their desire to cover off the undercut threat, leaving him exposed for the remainder of the race – yet came amid a run of just one podium in the last eight races.

Having been within three points of second-placed Mercedes as recently as Austria, Aston Martin are now in danger of losing fourth to McLaren, just 49 points behind with six rounds remaining and now achieving the results – crucially with both drivers – that Alonso was claiming for fun at the start of the season.

Yet would it be such a bad thing if a season that started so promisingly ends with the team in fifth?

Think back to the 2022 season finale – and how Aston Martin seemed to be doing whatever they could to avoid finishing ahead of Alfa Romeo in the Constructors’ standings, even if it meant spoiling the final race of Vettel’s career – and it is no longer such a bad thing to finish lower than hoped in the Championship.

With wind tunnel/CFD development on a sliding scale in Liberty Media, cost-cap-era F1, fifth place would give a team of Aston Martin’s resources – now with their transition to the new factory complete – extra runway to have another serious tilt at the leading teams in 2024.

The results don’t look good currently – and heads may even roll if this decline continues into next year – but there may be some method to Aston Martin’s mid-season mediocrity.

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