Winners and losers from the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen takes the applause after setting pole position for the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen takes the applause after claiming pole position.

Max Verstappen hit back from a disappointing outing in Singapore to set pole position in 2023 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying.

The Red Bull driver claimed his first pole since his home race at Zandvoort last month, with McLaren drivers Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris second and third respectively.

Here are the main winners and losers from Saturday at Suzuka…


Max Verstappen/Red Bull

Look closely and the signs were there in Singapore that Red Bull would hit back strongly at Suzuka.

His frustration may have been evident over team radio in Singapore, particularly at the end of a desperate lap in Q2, but once out of the car Verstappen cut a strangely relaxed figure for someone whose team’s unbeaten start to the season had finally come to an end.

As fans and media whispered of technical directives cutting Red Bull off at the knees, Max seemed safe in the knowledge that Singapore was simply a blip and all would be well a week later in Japan.

“It already felt like that on the simulator, that [Singapore] was a difficult set-up window for the car,” Verstappen said in Marina Bay. “Then we went to Suzuka and it just felt amazing again – like most of the races.”

How amazing? Six-tenths-over-the-opposition amazing.

So amazing that in a season in which Verstappen has set a whole new standard with the RB19, the bond between man and machine has never felt tighter.

The combination of Verstappen, the Red Bull and Suzuka – particularly the esses section, perfectly suited to both the aerodynamic efficiency of the RB19 and Max’s natural touch and feel for a racing car, forcing the others just to claw back whatever they could over the remainder of the lap – resulted in a lap some are already describing as one of the greatest in history.

Never in doubt…

Oscar Piastri/McLaren

Can it be a mere coincidence that Piastri has now outqualified Norris at both Spa and Suzuka, two of the three true drivers’ circuits on the calendar, and wasn’t far off doing the same in Monaco in just his sixth F1 appearance?

When it comes to assessing the potential of a young driver, it is often advisable to refer to their performance peaks as the reference points – and all of Piastri’s so far hint at a stunning future.

Back on the hardest compound tyres they loved so much at Silverstone, Spa and Zandvoort, the McLarens have reclaimed their status as best of the rest behind Verstappen’s Red Bull with Piastri given the upgrades Norris ran for the first time in Singapore.

The final gap was only marginal, but that will only add to the frustration for Norris even if he does well to conceal it in public.

Being pipped to P2 – on his team-mate’s first-ever visit to Suzuka, remember – will only add to the feeling that Norris will struggle to contain Piastri for too much longer.

Charles Leclerc

As more details have emerged about Carlos Sainz’s Singapore victory, so Charles Leclerc’s performance that weekend has been painted in a very different light.

In the most challenging season of his career to date, there was a temptation to cane him – again – when the so-called Singapore specialist was pipped to pole by Sainz and when, the following day, he finished a distant fourth, 21 seconds behind the race winner.

Yet with Leclerc himself reportedly volunteering in the pre-race meeting to start on soft tyres to protect Sainz in Singapore, fully aware it would harm his own prospects, there was a selflessness in his preparedness to put Ferrari first.

The Gilles Villeneuve comparisons may be tiresome for some, but it was hard to avoid thinking back to Monza in 1979 when Gilles sat dutifully in Jody Scheckter’s slipstream throughout, shepherding his team-mate to the title when there was still a realistic chance to go for it himself.

Enzo would have approved, and now at a circuit more suited to his manipulative technique than the reactive, reflexy Sainz – similar to the state of play in the Red Bull inter-team battle – Charles is back to looking like Charles again.

Fourth on the grid may not be a result to catch the eye, but a three-tenth advantage advantage over Sainz and just a tenth away from a front-row start represents a return to Leclerc’s irresistible, explosive best.

A breakthrough moment?

Yuki Tsunoda

Anyone who watched this year’s edition of Drive to Survive will have some grasp of the pressure under which Yuki Tsuonda operates in Japan.

Ahead of his first F1 appearance at Suzuka a year ago, his then-AlphaTauri team-mate and mentor Pierre Gasly was almost worried sick for him, concerned that the scrutiny and attention at his home race would prove too much for Tsunoda to handle.

Twelve months on, on the day he was announced as an AlphaTauri driver for 2024, ninth on the grid with a lap within a tenth of George Russell’s Mercedes had the feel of a seminal moment.

Here is someone gradually growing into the stature of an F1 superstar.


Sergio Perez

On the weekend Red Bull stand a realistic chance of sealing the Constructors’ Championship, Sergio Perez’s latest qualifying disappointment acts as a reminder why they haven’t wrapped it up already.

It became very obvious very early on that Suzuka was going to be one of Verstappen’s untouchable weekends, yet a deficit of eight tenths – with both McLarens and Leclerc’s Ferrari separating the Red Bulls – once again reflects poorly on Perez.

Still, at least he’s managed to qualify in Q3 this weekend. For only the ninth time in 16 races in 2023.


A second off Verstappen around the Suzuka lap, is this the “progress” Mercedes have been constantly referring to since their Monaco upgrade at the end of May?

No? Well how about the half-second deficit to the McLarens, running the exact same engine?

Mercedes continue to talk a good talk, but after almost two full seasons of the ground effect cars the walk continues to elude them. recommends

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Not only have Red Bull elevated themselves into a different stratosphere since they fought as equals in 2021, now Mercedes’ customer teams – first Aston Martin, now McLaren – are putting them to shame too, making more progress this season than Merc have managed at any point since the start of 2022.

Talk of a 2024 title challenge is fanciful in the extreme for a team visibly struggling to adjust to their new reality.

Lance Stroll/Aston Martin

After being bitten by the barriers in Singapore, Lance Stroll would have arrived in Japan fully aware that Suzuka has a habit of bearing its teeth too.

Would it be such a surprise if, a week on, he left a little extra margin at a circuit where the run-off is so scarce, where putting the car slightly out of line up the esses, through the Degners, entering Spoon and at 130R can result in the mother of all shunts? Racing drivers are only human, after all.

Even if he is operating at full capacity – and it must be stressed that there is no suggestion that he is not – there is a clear limit to Aston Martin’s ambitions here anyway.

Fernando Alonso forced his way into Q3 powered by sheer bloody-mindedness, but was a ultimately very distant 10th and more than two tenths slower than Tsuonda’s AlphaTauri.

Alonso’s early-season podiums – even his drive to second on the similarly fast sweeps of Zandvoort just last month – feel a long, long time ago now.

Logan Sargeant

So, who had the last corner in the Logan Sargeant crash sweepstake this week?

It’s turned into that sort of season. At this point it would be a surprise if a race weekend passed without the sight of the number 2 Williams being splattered down a barrier somewhere.

James Vowles continues to resolutely support Sargeant – still pointing out the good even when it seems, at least from the outside, that all there is right now is bad.

Yet with Liam Lawson on the market after AlphaTauri decided to retain Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo, there is now a clear upgrade available for the second Williams seat.

Time to do the decent thing and put Sarge out of his misery.

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