2023 Japanese Grand Prix | 8 talking points

25th September 2023
Damien Smith

“You’ve built a rocket ship of a car,” radioed back a satisfied Max Verstappen after scoring a predictably dominant win in the Japanese Grand Prix. The performance single-handedly clinched a sixth Formula 1 constructors’ crown for Red Bull and a second on the bounce, with a third drivers’ title likely to follow for Verstappen next time out in Qatar. After the anticlimactic loss in Singapore, normal service was resumed at Suzuka.


1. Verstappen in serene mode

There was nothing unlucky about Verstappen’s 13th victory of the season. Having scored an easy pole position on Saturday, the only threat the Dutchman faced was at the start from the plucky McLaren duo. The Red Bull just did enough away from the line to deflect fellow front-row start Oscar Piastri, but then Verstappen had Lando Norris steaming down the outside into Turn 1. But a firm line through Turn 2 allowed the runaway championship leader to assume his usual position, and that was essentially it for the win.

An early safety car interlude gave Verstappen a restart to contend with, but that wasn’t a problem. By the end of 53 laps the Red Bull was 19.3 seconds clear of Norris to secure a consummate win. Back in the pits, celebrations erupted in the Red Bull garage as the teams’ title was secured with six races to spare. All too easy.


2. Double podium for McLaren at Suzuka

They gave it their best shot from the start, but Norris and Piastri knew they weren’t fighting Verstappen and Red Bull at Suzuka. As it turned out, they didn’t really fight each other much either as the McLarens saw off both Ferrari and Mercedes for a glorious 2-3 finish.

Norris’s outside line at Turn 1 allowed him to emerge head of Piastri who had narrowly outqualified him on Saturday. The Australian briefly got back ahead after the first round of stops, Piastri undercutting with the aid of a brief Virtual Safety Car. But Norris ultimately had better race pace, swept past the rookie on lap 27 and scored his fourth runner-up finish of the season and second in a week. As for Piastri, this marked his first podium finish just a few days after McLaren secured his services until the end of 2026. A fine drive from the 22-year-old who surely has so much ahead of him to look forward to.


3. Reality bites for Ferrari

After the euphoria of Singapore, Ferrari returned to earth with a bit of a bump in Japan – although both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr made the best of what they had. This time Leclerc was ahead and secured fourth place without offering much of a threat to the McLarens.

Marina Bay winner Sainz found himself undercut by the Mercedes duo early on but was able to relieve the one-stopping George Russell of sixth, even if Lewis Hamilton proved out of his range in the closing laps. But the result did at least narrow Ferrari’s gap to Mercedes in their chase of second in the constructors’ standings by four points. There are only 20 between them with six rounds to go, setting up what is perhaps the most intriguing on-track narrative as the 2023 season counts down.


4. Tension at Mercedes F1

This proved an uncomfortable race for Mercedes. Hamilton out-qualified Russell, with the black cars starting just seventh and eighth, but the seven-time champion was compromised at the start after incurring some damage after contact with Sergio Perez on the way into the Turn 1 funnel. He just about stayed ahead of his team-mate, but Russell was soon pressing him, Hamilton running them both out wide at Spoon. It didn’t look good. That moment clearly caused some concern on the pit wall and it was decided to split the pair on strategy, Russell taking on a demanding one-stop route which was always likely to hurt him in the closing stages given the high degree of tyre degradation at Suzuka. And so it proved.

After the second round of stops, Russell briefly cycled through to the front but didn’t even attempt to fight Verstappen who quickly reclaimed his lead. Russell then found himself powerless to stop both McLarens sweeping past him but then mounted a better defence against Leclerc. The Ferrari ace pulled a brave move on the outside into Turn 1 on lap 45 and just had the momentum out of Turn 2 to edge ahead before he ran out of road.

Now the conventionally two-stopping Hamilton and a charging Sainz loomed large. Hamilton successfully lobbied for George to allow him to pass, but Russell was unhappy about that call, knowing how it would compromise him. He’d wanted to remain ahead until the last lap, allowing Hamilton to use the DRS tow to defend against Sainz for the benefit of both – as Sainz and Norris had managed against the Mercs in Singapore (Sainz noted the tactic on the radio). But by allowing Hamilton to pass Russell quickly, Mercedes left the younger man without much defence against the Ferrari.

Hamilton was ordered to hang back to gift Russell a DRS tow and did so, but if made little difference as Sainz easily drove past the second Mercedes on the run to Turn 1. Now he focused on Hamilton who was feeling vulnerable and generally nettled by the events of a difficult day. Still, Lewis remained just out of reach as the black cars delivered just about all their team could expect on current form. But don’t be surprised if there’s an element of a hardening frost between the teammates right now.


5. Alonso “thrown to the lions”

It was at Suzuka that Fernando Alonso set Honda against him by comparing its power to a “GP2 engine” during his McLaren days. This time, he was back on the radio to criticise his Aston Martin team, claiming they had thrown him “to the lions” following an early switch from Pirelli’s soft tyres to the hards.

Alonso was frustrated to find himself easy meat in those early stages having made a typically good start, Hamilton demoting him with a fine move at 130R. But later in the race, the lone Aston – Lance Stroll having retired with a rear wing failure – could at least fend off the Alpine duo of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon for a hard-earned eighth place. The midfield is precisely where Aston has fallen to after its strong start to the season, but the green cars remain 49 points clear of McLaren as the fourth-best team. Will it be enough given the orange cars’ strong form? It’s another talking point that’s warming nicely for the races to come.


6. Albon and Bottas collide at Suzuka

The early safety car was called for debris left by Alexander Albon’s Williams riding up in a collision with Valtteri Bottas from the start. The Alfa Romeo driver was then assaulted at the hairpin by the other Williams driven by the hapless Logan Sargeant. A miserable race for all three, with Zhou Guanyu salvaging 13th after recovering from picking up damage in the wake of that early collision.


7. Lawson beats Tsunoda

Liam Lawson can count himself unlucky to be overlooked by AlphaTauri for a 2024 drive in favour of Daniel Ricciardo, especially after this performance. Having secured his first points in Singapore, the Kiwi battled team-mate Yuki Tsunoda all race and just got the nod in 11th after a second-stop undercut. Another good effort from the injured Ricciardo’s substitute. He couldn’t have done more to earn a full-time call-up.


8. Calamity for Perez

Final word this week to Sergio Perez, who put in a sorry performance in the other Red Bull. The early clash with Hamilton put him immediately on the backfoot from only fifth on the grid in F1’s fastest car. He then earned a silly five-second penalty for a needless safety car infringement, then made a desperate lunge on Kevin Magnussen that earned him a second one. Having served the first before skulking back to the pits, the team sent him back out much later to take the second and avoid a grid penalty in Qatar. As Red Bull and Verstappen celebrated victory and the constructors’ title, poor old Checo must have been feeling sick after a day of pure calamity.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

  • F1 2023

  • Formula 1

  • Red Bull Racing

  • Ferrari

  • Max Verstappen

  • McLaren

  • Suzuka

  • Japanese GP

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