Five big Japanese GP questions: Red Bull upgrades, Sargeant’s return, key Perez moment?

Oliver Harden
A close-up shot of Max Verstappen with a Japanese GP preview banner

Max Verstappen and Red Bull could reassert their dominance in Japan

After Carlos Sainz’s stunning victory in Australia, are Max Verstappen and Red Bull set to hit back hard at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix?

Rumours since the car’s launch in February have suggested Red Bull are set to bring a significant – and very Mercedes-esque – upgrade at Suzuka. That leads our discussion of the main talking points ahead of the fourth race of the F1 2024 season…

2024 Japanese Grand Prix preview

Are Red Bull about to go in for the kill?

The launch of the RB20 in February was Red Bull’s checkmate moment, when the reigning World Champions blew apart any suggestion that the law of diminishing returns would result in a closer season in 2024.

In producing a car so different to last year’s dominant RB19, Adrian Newey and his team had taken Red Bull out of range of the opposition and completely changed the game. Again.

And now, on the eve of the Japanese GP, are they about to go in for the kill?

Reports in the days after the RB20 reveal claimed Red Bull are planning to go full zero-pod at Suzuka, embracing a concept Mercedes spent more than a year trying and failing to master before abandoning completely in early 2023.

Toto Wolff would often say during Mercedes’ dominant spell that his team were at their most dangerous on their bad days.

And there would be no better riposte to a rare defeat in Australia than Red Bull arriving at the very next race with the RB20 turned up to 11, primed to utterly bury the opposition.

“Well, I mean, the colour will be the same,” Verstappen said when asked about the rumoured upgrade.

“You will see.”

How will Charles Leclerc respond after Carlos Sainz stole his thunder again?

It’s becoming a pattern for Charles Leclerc now, forced to offer warm congratulations to Carlos Sainz on a milestone achievement when it could have been him instead.

For Australia 2024, see Monza and Singapore 2023 – all races within the last six months when Ferrari were seriously competitive and Leclerc was simply outperformed by his team-mate.

It would hurt at the best of times, but when Ferrari have already let Carlos go for 2025?

Humiliating. Especially when people start whispering that Fred Vasseur might have dropped the wrong driver to make way for Lewis Hamilton next year… recommends

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Suzuka was the scene of Leclerc’s resurrection in 2023, the arrival of a new floor bringing Charles back to life at the time he needed it most just seven days after Sainz’s greatest triumph in Singapore.

A circuit of Suzuka’s layout will always reward a driver of Leclerc’s natural touch and feel over Sainz’s more abrupt, reactive technique – most strikingly through the esses of the first sector, undoubtedly the key to the entire lap.

Keep it on the island and Leclerc will be well-placed to put Sainz back in his place this weekend.

Can McLaren repeat their 2023 Suzuka pace?

McLaren produced arguably their most convincing performance of last season at Suzuka, where they registered the first of two consecutive double podium finishes.

That came 24 hours after Oscar Piastri had outqualified Lando Norris, a natural through the esses – the greatest section of F1 road for separating the best from the rest – on his first-ever visit to Suzuka.

McLaren have been solid if unspectacular in the opening weeks of 2024, but the return to a fast, flowing circuit – and Pirelli’s choice of the hardest compounds for this weekend – should provide a useful comparison of where the MCL38 stands against the best of what the 2023 car had to offer.

The jaw-dropping sight of Norris scurrying away from Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in the Sector 1 sweeps late in the race in Jeddah confirmed McLaren’s strength remains in the fast, flowing corners.

Expect Norris and Piastri to emerge as Ferrari’s biggest threat for the final podium spot behind the two Red Bulls.


Is this where Sergio Perez’s season starts to crumble?

A true, traditional driver’s circuit severely lacking in slow-speed traction events, Suzuka is exactly the sort of circuit where Sergio Perez was so exposed last year.

Indeed, his 2023 season hit rock bottom in Japan, where he was humiliatingly sent back into the race to serve a penalty – and thus avoid carrying it into the next race – having already retired.

Perez started 2024 characteristically well by following Verstappen home in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, doing everything Red Bull could feasibly ask of him in his bid to retain his seat.

Yet his untidy weekend in Australia – where a three-place grid penalty for impeding was followed by a muted drive to fifth in the race, having had a visor tear-off lodged in his floor, according to the team – was a missed opportunity to prove to Red Bull that he can stand up and be counted when Verstappen hits trouble.

Red Bull will almost certainly fly at Suzuka – especially if the aforementioned upgrade has the desired effect – but there may be a marked difference between ‘Verstappen quick’ and ‘Perez quick’.

Keep a close eye on the gap between them in qualifying.

Can Alex Albon be the responsible team leader Williams need?

With Logan Sargeant left kicking his heels from Friday night, the spare chassis saga that engulfed Williams in Melbourne did not reflect well on Alex Albon.

Aware that Williams had no safety net in the event of a heavy accident, might Albon have driven with more care rather than bounce his car off two walls in the opening practice session?

It was a reckless incident, putting his team – specifically Sargeant and team principal James Vowles, forced to handle all the heat – in a world of trouble.

And it raised the question of just how much Albon has really developed, both as a driver and a potential team leader, since being discarded by Red Bull at the end of 2020.

Sargeant will be back on track in Japan, but reports say Williams will once again be without a spare chassis on site.

Which will pose a fascinating challenge for Albon at a circuit rewarding of bravery and commitment.

How to attack, but not so much that you risk another big crash? How to be cautious, but not so cautious that you bleed precious lap time to your competitors?

There is an exceptionally fine line here. Just how much can Williams rely on Albon to toe it?

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