Japanese Grand Prix conclusions: The Red Bull effect, Ricciardo’s last chance and more

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen raises his arms in celebration at Suzuka with a PlanetF1.com conclusions banner

Are fans already bored of F1 in 2024? Another Max-a-thon season is unsustainable

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s third one-two finish in four races at the start of the F1 2024 season at the Japanese Grand Prix.

After narrowly pipping Sergio Perez to pole position at Suzuka, Verstappen dominated on race day to win by 12.5 seconds from his team-mate, with Australian GP winner Carlos Sainz third for Ferrari. Here are our conclusions from Japan…

Conclusions from the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix

Red Bull’s dominance has reduced the rest to underdog status

Only when an eclipse strikes do you fully appreciate how pleasant it was to feel the sun on your face.

There was something strange in the air when Carlos Sainz claimed victory for Ferrari at the Australian Grand Prix, but it was hard to put your finger on it exactly what it was.

Only now – with Verstappen leading a third Red Bull one-two finish in four races in 2024 in Japan, carrying on his merry march to a fourth successive World Championship as if Melbourne never even happened – has it truly hit home.

For Australia 2024 (and for that matter, Singapore 2023), see Monza 2020 and Hungary 2021, all races over the last four years with surprise winners.

The difference then compared to now?

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Red Bull and Aston Martin with interesting upgrades for Japanese GP

The definition of the word “surprise” has altered beyond all recognition.

Whereas the victories for Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon in 2020/21 were genuine surprises – surprises in the classic sense of the word – a Ferrari win should never be considered a shock or a novelty.

Yet that is somehow how Singapore and Melbourne felt, both races touched by that same sense of rare possibility: the favourite is out of contention and one of the unlikely lads – be it Sainz, Charles Leclerc or Lando Norris – is going to hit the jackpot, with a chance to be a hero even if just for one day.

Call it the Red Bull effect, reducing the rest – teams of the stature of Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes; drivers of the calibre of the Melbourne podium trio as well Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and more – to the status of plucky underdogs.

With the excitement of a new season already beginning to dwindle, there was a disturbing lack of interest and intrigue surrounding the Japanese Grand Prix as F1 settles into yet another Max-a-thon year.

Yet despite the sport’s long history of pinning back dominant teams with targeted rule changes, still there remains a weird reticence – not even a peep after almost 24 months of near-ceaseless Verstappen victories – to do anything to slow down Red Bull as F1 heads towards the iceberg.

There is much to be admired about the consistent excellence of Verstappen and Red Bull, together setting the highest standard ever seen in F1, yet just like Ferrari and Mercedes before them this century the scale of their dominance has long become grotesque.

And when one team become too good for the common good, invariably the sport as a whole suffers.

Sitting back and waiting for the great rules reset of 2026 to solve all F1’s problems?

No longer an option, for the fans taken in by 2021 and sustained by the Drive to Survive drug will have switched off by then once they come to the realisation that the on-track offering leaves a lot to be desired.

Liberty Media was fortunate last year that the frustration over a dull season fell on Mercedes and Ferrari, whose fundamentally flawed car concepts gave Red Bull a free run at a near-faultless season.

This time? The blowback will be felt by F1 itself for doing nothing whatsoever to correct the direction of a sport that was so obviously veering off course this time last year.

There is no appetite to have another season lost to boredom.

A wise man once said that sport is the only industry on the planet than can serve up crap one week and get people to pay for the same thing seven days later.

On the evidence of the first four races, F1 is going to put that particular assertion to the test in 2024.

Progress? A more stable platform? Mercedes still can’t beat their own customers

In the end, it all comes down to a matter of perspective.

You can listen to the reaction of Lewis Hamilton after practice and qualifying at Suzuka – his body language bouncier, his eyes more alive than at any point over the last 12 months – and believe that this was a breakthrough weekend in Mercedes’ understanding of the W15.

Or you can glance at the results and conclude that even on Mercedes’ strongest (well, most positive…) weekend of the season so far, they were still slower than two of their customers teams.

The comparisons to McLaren and Aston Martin, both of whom have experienced considerable steps forward since the start of last season, is a particularly troubling one for Mercedes, putting into sharp focus their own inability to crack F1’s current regulations.

As Toto Wolff so memorably put it in Bahrain last year, when it finally dawned on the team that the doomed zero-pod design was a developmental dead end: “[Aston Martin] gained two seconds in half a year and their car is half ours.”

And has there been a more visceral indication of the enduring depth of Mercedes woes over the last two years than the sight of Lando Norris’s McLaren, on identical tyres, scurrying out of Hamilton’s reach in the high-speed sweeps of Jeddah’s first sector just a few weeks ago?

Mercedes will argue that circumstances – Hamilton’s snap of oversteer at the start of his final Q3 attempt, for which his tyres paid the price over the remainder of the lap, as well as the decision to take the restart on hards – prevented the W15 from realising the results to reflect Hamilton’s pre-race vibes in Japan.

But for as long as a team of their might, recent history and immense resource continue to lag behind McLaren and Aston Martin – notwithstanding the lofty ambitions of these two teams – Mercedes are just clutching at straws.

As every week passes, so Hamilton’s decision to leave it all behind looks a masterstroke.

The uncomfortable truth? Yuki Tsunoda’s face doesn’t fit at Red Bull – or Aston Martin

So have you signed up to the Yuki Tsunoda fan club yet?

A far cry from the naive, vulnerable kid whom Pierre Gasly agonised over ahead of his first F1 appearance at Suzuka back in 2022, fearing his young team-mate was not emotionally equipped to cope with the pressure of his home grand prix, Tsunoda has blossomed beautifully into a polished performer over the last 12 months.

It has been a long and often painful road, but finally Tsunoda – in accelerating the demise of Daniel Ricciardo while emerging as RB’s team leader in the early weeks of 2024 – is rewarding the faith Red Bull and Honda showed in him during those inconsistent early days.

A third consecutive Q3 appearance, followed by a first points finish at Suzuka via some stunningly crafted overtakes at the foot of Dunlop Curve, had the feel of a milestone moment in his path to maturity.

Yet where next? Just how far could his emergence as a fast, reliable point-scorer take him?

Hmm. Pass.

Normally, of course, the natural next step for a high-performing Red Bull junior is a seat with the senior team, yet it has been clear for some time that Tsunoda never has and never will be a candidate for a promotion.

And for good reason too, for if he has taken the light out of the eyes of Ricciardo, Gasly, Albon and Perez over the years, a competitor of Verstappen’s intensity would almost certainly press Tsunoda’s pressure points and bring his weaknesses right back to the surface in the most punishing fashion imaginable.

Think of it not as a rejection of Yuki’s talent and potential, but more an effort to protect him at all costs from being eaten alive…

Honda’s switch of allegiance from Red Bull to Aston Martin for 2026, meanwhile, has inevitably led to suggestions that Tsunoda could find a room at the Strolls’ house of fun.

Yet it would require a significant shift in policy – maybe even a change of ownership – for him to feature in the team’s plans for life after Fernando Alonso.

Study Aston’s driver recruitment since the 2021 rebrand, after all, and it is clear that the perfect profile for Lawrence Stroll is an ageing, former World Champion whose best days are quite possibly behind him.

Why? Because if Lance is faster than them, he looks like a world beater.

And if he’s slower? Well, isn’t that to be expected? No big deal. And besides, just think of the PR benefits…

It worked a treat with a faded force like Sebastian Vettel; considerably less so with Alonso, whose signing effectively equated to Stroll sending his own son to slaughter.

Being blown away by Alonso on a weekly basis is one thing, however, but by someone of Tsunoda’s standard? Unthinkable.

The greatest test for Tsunoda is potentially still to come this season, as there remains a nagging suspicion – pushed by Helmut Marko himself – that the RB car has a higher ceiling than even he has managed to extract so far in 2024.

Would the return to a race seat of Liam Lawson, who measured up well against Tsuonda during his five-race cameo in 2023, put Yuki’s current performances into some kind of context?

These may well be the greatest days of Tsunoda’s career to date.

Yet far from barging open doors up and down the grid, there is a distinct possibility that this is as good as it’s ever going to get.

Daniel Ricciardo has one last chance to save his skin

How much was it McLaren’s fault and how much of it was down to him?

That was always the great unanswered question hanging over Ricciardo’s F1 comeback in mid-2023.

Was he a victim of both an ill-handling car and the culture of the team, whose propensity to flood their drivers’ heads with information messed with his mojo when all Daniel ever wanted to do was just go with the flow?

Or was his McLaren career the moment when all Ricciardo’s post-Red Bull excesses, prioritising his celebrity status and bank balance over his career prospects, brutally caught up with him?

With 11 races of his comeback complete, the answer – as long suspected – now seems obvious.

Being routinely beaten by as prodigious a talent as Lando Norris over two miserable years was damaging but salvageable – Ricciardo had simply built up too much credit over too many years to be allowed to slip into the shadows unnoticed once his McLaren career had ended.

Yet there would be no coming back – and, this time, precious little sympathy – if he were to be bounced out of RB by Tsunoda.

Especially after spending almost every waking moment since last summer putting his name forward as the prime candidate for a return to Red Bull’s senior team in 2025.

Certainly, at this stage, his closest friends in the media (they’re easy enough to spot) are the only ones left still thinking of Ricciardo as a serious candidate for a Red Bull seat next year.

Everyone else would now see it as an achievement if he managed to last the season with his current team.

Ricciardo never used to be a crasher but since the rot set in at McLaren incidents like his retirement at Suzuka – see also his collisions with Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz at the start of Mexico 2021 and Imola 2022 respectively – have become more commonplace.

The stewards officially judged it to be a racing incident yet there was a complacency to how Ricciardo exited Turn 2 on the opening lap, glancing once in his left mirror before drifting absentmindedly across the track and being tipped into a spin by Alex Albon, lurking unseen on his right.

Compare and contrast his lack of awareness in traffic to say, Alonso, whose head is seen frantically darting left, right, left, right – and once more for good luck, nothing left to chance – when surrounded by a group of cars on the first lap.

Ricciardo began the weekend requesting a new chassis – listed, as everyone knows, as the very last resort in the If All Else Fails… section of the Great Big Book of Classic Racing Driver Excuses – with RB set to deliver one in time for the next race in China.

As a result, the Shanghai weekend already has the feel of Ricciardo’s very final chance to prove once and for all that the fault lies with the car(s) and not with him.

“Before you tell me I’m s**t, let’s get that sorted and put to bed,” he pleaded at Suzuka in revealing his desire for a new chassis.

Your wish is granted, Daniel. But the evidence is stacking up and none of it is flattering…

One quick lap, one giant leap towards a new Red Bull deal for Sergio Perez

Despite his encouraging start to 2024, following Verstappen home to seal one-two finishes for Red Bull in Bahrain and Jeddah, this had the potential to be quite an uncomfortable weekend for Perez.

It was in Japan, after all, that his 2023 hit its undignified nadir, Perez sent back out to serve his second penalty of the day – and thus avoid carrying it into the next race – having already retired from the race.

Back at Suzuka – and the kind of traditional, flowing drivers’ circuit where he struggled so desperately against Verstappen last year – there was an unspoken danger that this could be the race where his season would begin to come off the rails.

Yet it is becoming clear that the Sergio Perez of 2024 – at least for now, until the car’s development sways away from him (a common complaint throughout his Red Bull career) – is a different, more resilient and self-assured character.

No longer obsessed with trying to make sense of Max’s magic with the Red Bull, Perez at last appears to be focusing on his own strengths and making the car work for him instead.

And all those fears of a difficult weekend faded away with his lap at the end of Q3, just 0.066 seconds away from Verstappen on this of all circuits.

Even better? A little mistake at Degner 2 in the early laps created a satisfying distance to Verstappen for Red Bull, confirming Perez as a support to Max rather than a threat.

Twelve seconds behind Max at the chequered flag and eight ahead of Sainz, it was a wingman job done to perfection.

Much has been made of Red Bull potentially taking advantage of a volatile driver market by approaching Sainz or even – if Christian Horner really wants to teach the Verstappens a Ferrari 2014-style lesson – Alonso for 2025.

Red Bull, however, should be very wary of throwing away what they have with Perez when – again, for now – he is giving them no reason to.

Never forget, after all, that by being Sergio Perez, he lets Max Verstappen be Max Verstappen.

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