Max Verstappen made it clear Red Bull are back as he clinched the practice hat-trick at the Japanese GP with a 1:30.267 in FP3, Saturday’s final hour of running ahead of qualifying.
But while the Dutchman was quickest of all, McLaren briefly usurped him to run 1-2 with Lando Norris finishing 0.240s down with Oscar Piastri a further 0.04s back.
It was a slow start to Saturday’s action with not a single driver venturing out in the first five minutes before Carlos Sainz, the winner of the last race in Singapore, broke the silence.
Max Verstappen once again set the pace at Suzuka
Charles Leclerc followed him out and went ahead of his team-mate with a 1:31.9. That kicked off the action…
As the much-improved McLarens ventured out, Lando Norris went P1 ahead of his team-mate Oscar Piastri, while it was suggested Ferrari may have started on a higher fuel load to give them a bit more data ahead of Sunday’s grand prix given they’re a team that suffered with high tyre degradation.
George Russell had an “unexpected” moment with his gears, Mercedes confirming they had also been caught out. He still went third fastest with Lewis Hamilton, sporting arguably the funkiest helmet design seen this year, 0.01s ahead in second place.
There were problems for Liam Lawson who reported his front brakes were on fire. AlphaTauri told him it was just smoke from a new set of brakes. Alex Albon also had brake issues, saying he “flat spotted” one.
But it was all change as Max Verstappen, 20 minutes into the session, came out of his first laps of the day and immediately went quickest with a 1:30.9. The reigning World Champion was on track with Red Bull’s new floor edges on his RB19.
With the drivers speculated to be saving tyres for Sunday’s race, some pundits predicting it could even be a three-stopper, only four drivers were in double figures heading into the final 20 minutes of practice.
Putting brand new softs on the MCL60s, Norris and Piastri sat 1-2 by almost half a second ahead of Verstappen. The Dutchman, though, had yet to put in his qualy sim.
Their joy was short-lived when he did, Verstappen coming through with a 1:30.267 to sit 0.240s ahead of Norris with Piastri third.
Interestingly it was noted that while Norris went hard at the start of his lap and lost pace in the final sector, Verstappen took it relatively easy in the first sector and then fired in two purples.
Sergio Perez was fourth while the Ferraris went with the Verstappen approach and finished fifth and sixth with Leclerc ahead of Sainz.
1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull Racing 1:30.267
2 Lando NORRIS McLaren +0.240
3 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +0.288
4 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing +0.737
5 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +0.755
6 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +0.870
7 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +0.892
8 George RUSSELL Mercedes +1.238
9 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +1.282
10 Guanyu ZHOU Alfa Romeo +1.401
11 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +1.432
12 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas F1 Team +1.613
13 Esteban OCON Alpine +1.657
14 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +1.684
15 Nico HULKENBERG Haas F1 Team +1.712
16 Logan SARGEANT Williams +1.735
17 Liam LAWSON AlphaTauri +1.781
18 Alexander ALBON Williams +1.846
19 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +1.887
20 Pierre GASLY Alpine +1.932