Japanese GP: Max Verstappen back in cruise control as Daniel Ricciardo’s nightmare continues

Michelle Foster
Max Verstappen celebrates yet another P1

Max Verstappen celebrates yet another P1

Max Verstappen shrugged off Red Bull’s race pace concerns as he cruised to the victory at the Japanese Grand Prix ahead of his team-mate Sergio Perez in Red Bull’s third 1-2 of the season.

It was, however, a nightmare afternoon for one driver from the Red Bull family with Daniel Ricciardo causing a red flag stoppage when he collided with Alex Albon on the opening lap.

Max Verstappen extends championship advantage with Suzuka win

The drivers lined up on the grid with Max Verstappen on pole position a bit in the dark about tyre wear and degradation given the increased track temperature up to 41’C, which was significantly hotter than earlier in the weekend.

Of the top ten, only Fernando Alonso in P5 started on the softs with everyone else on the mediums. But from Nico Hulkenberg in P12, only Kevin Magnussen and Zhou Guanyu were on the mediums.

Such was Verstappen’s start he went unchallenged into Turn 1, putting metres between himself and Sergio Perez with Lando Norris holding onto third ahead of Carlos Sainz and Alonso.

The Safety Car was out on lap 1 as Alex Albon and Daniel Ricciardo crashed heavily at Turn 2, with Albon, reporting he was “squeezed”, into the tyre barrier while Ricciardo took out a fair number of advertising boards. Red flag!

The race, with 50 laps remaining, was resumed with a standing start after an almost 30-minute repair job on the barriers. Mercedes opted to put Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, seventh and ninth, on the hard tyres with Pierre Gasly, Lance Stroll and Logan Sargeant also making the swap.

Another great start from Verstappen with Perez second ahead of Norris as Alonso took on Sainz for fourth place, racing ahead of Oscar Piastri and Charles Leclerc, who passed Hamilton. Yuki Tsunoda made his way up to ninth as he overtook Russell with Esteban Ocon reporting potential damage after a “hit”. Russell reclaimed P9 off Tsunoda.

Chasing Verstappen for the lead, Perez had a wild ride over the kerbs under the bridge, potentially damaging his floor, while Valtteri Bottas had an eight-second pit stop and Nico Hulkenberg was another to pit early in the race. Tsunoda was another driver to pit on lap eight, out of the points and down to 16th place.

Back at the front, Verstappen pulled away from Perez despite complaining about his RB20 moving from oversteer to understeer as Perez in turn dropped Norris, who was being chased by Sainz. Norris pitted on lap 12, Ferrari left Sainz out. Piastri came in a lap later, releasing Leclerc. Zhou, pitting for a third time, retired the car.

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As Russell chased down Hamilton, the Briton offered to move over for his team-mate with Russell told: “So Lewis will let you by. He’s struggling with a lot of understeer.” The former Williams driver quickly put two seconds between himself and his team-mate.

Perez and Sainz pitted from second and third on lap 16 as Verstappen continued in the lead. Both drivers came out behind Norris. Verstappen was in the next lap, handing the lead to Leclerc. He came out P3, also behind Russell but that didn’t last long.

Meanwhile, Norris overtook the yet-to-pit Hamilton to run P4 and then Russell to move up to third, while Perez pulled off an audacious move on Hamilton through 130R, and then put in a repeat performance on Russell. It was then Sainz’s turn to pass the Mercedes team-mates. Hamilton urged Mercedes to “change the strategy” as Alonso also blitzed by.

Verstappen was back up in P1 on lap 21, swooping past Leclerc at Turn 1 to lead. Russell pitted on lap 23, swapping hard for hard with Magnussen down to Stroll all pitting on the same lap as they scrapped for the final point in the race. Tsunoda led that tussle as Hulkenberg had yet to make his second stop. Hamilton came in on lap 24, rejoining the action in ninth place behind Russell.

Chased down by Perez, Leclerc, who had yet to pit, ran wide to allow the Red Bull driver through with Norris then right on his rear wing. The latter was told to box but asked “why so early”. And then he pitted, Leclerc in too. Leclerc came out ahead of Norris, both on hard tyres with Russell sandwiched between the two. All three were on hard tyres and expected to run to the end.

Perez and Alonso pitted for the second time in the race on lap 34, Piastri also stopping. Bottas complained about Magnussen “weaving” on the straight, Stroll was investigated but cleared over a possible pit lane infringement, and Verstappen pitted from the lead putting Sainz into P1 ahead of Verstappen, Leclerc and Perez… make that Perez and Leclerc.

Sainz pitted on lap 37, Verstappen back in P1 in a Red Bull 1-2, with the Spaniard out on fresh hard tyres but P7 and behind Hamilton. P5 a few minutes later as he overtook Hamilton, and Russell pitted. Hamilton in two laps later, a small issues with his front right costing him a second.

Logan Sargeant brought out the yellows when he lost it at the second Degner, he was able to return to the track and headed into the pits for new tyres.

With 10 to go, Verstappen led Perez ahead of Leclerc and Norris but Sainz, on 10-lap fresher tyres, was on the charge. He overtook Norris and then hunted down his team-mate, no team orders at Ferrari. The Ferraris run tail to nose on lap 47 with Sainz passing the Monegasque driver, DRS and fresher tyres making it an easy one.

Russell, another driver on fresher tyres than those ahead, chased down the Piastri/Alonso battle with a bit of argy-bargy seeing Piastri forced off the track but he stayed ahead of the Mercedes driver. As Sainz did in Singapore last season, Alonso used the DRS to help Piastri keep Russell behind him.

In a tale of threes, Verstappen romped to the win, his third of this season, ahead of Perez in what was Red Bull’s third 1-2 of the championship. Sainz, for the third time, was on the podium in third place. Leclerc was fourth ahead of Norris and Alonso with Russell’s last lap pass on Piastri giving him seventh place. Piastri was eighth with Hamilton P9.

On a day when Ricciardo blotted his copybook, Tsunoda added to his points haul as he brought his RB home in tenth place to the delight of the Japanese fans.

Result

1 Max VERSTAPPEN winner
2 Sergio PEREZ +12.535
3 Carlos SAINZ +20.866
4 Charles LECLERC +26.522
5 Lando NORRIS +29.700
6 Fernando ALONSO +44.272
7 George RUSSELL +45.951
8 Oscar PIASTRI +47.525
9 Lewis HAMILTON +48.626
10 Yuki TSUNODA +1 lap
11 Nico HULKENBERG +1 lap
12 Lance STROLL +1 lap
13 Kevin MAGNUSSEN +1 lap
14 Valtteri BOTTAS +1 lap
15 Esteban OCON +1 lap
16 Pierre GASLY +1 lap
17 Logan SARGEANT +1 lap

Did not finish

Zhou Guanyu – technical – lap 13
Daniel Ricciardo – crash – lap 1
Alex Albon – crash – lap 1

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