Max Verstappen has put himself in a perfect position to claim his second world title today after acing qualifying and taking pole at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Verstappen needed only one hot lap to take top spot on the grid, defeating Charles Leclerc for pole by just 0.01 seconds, but that single flyer was also his most controversial.
The Dutchman came close to wiping out Lando Norris in a what would have been a horror smash at 130R as both prepared for the first Q3 laps. The stewards investigated and found him to be at fault, though a reprimand mean the Red Bull Racing driver is free to start from pole.
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Victory with fastest lap will guarantee him the championship. Winning the race with Leclerc and teammate Sergio Perez third or lower will also win him the title. Other permutations are possible.
The odds are certainly in his favour, but grand prix Sunday promises to have a wildcard element he’ll have to tame first.
First of all, the circuit is green from Friday’s rain. Degradation was high during the sole hour of dry practice on Saturday, and getting to the end of the race could require two stops. Grip will also ramp up during the day as more rubber is laid down, constantly shifting the strategy and set-up goalposts.
Second, despite earlier forecasts for a fine weekend, rain is now predicted to return to the track from around two hours before the race and continue into the evening.
Will it be a fully wet race? A race that goes from dry to wet or vice versa? Or a race that’s sporadically affected by showers?
Teams have already made their set-up decision based on their best predictions and after limited practice time. The usual precision of a race weekend doesn’t apply.
Master the mixed conditions and Verstappen will be world champion for a second time. Fumble and the title race goes to the United States.
A CHAMPIONSHIP-CONTENDING FRONT ROW — SORT OF
Max Verstappen will start alongside Charles Leclerc on the front row of the grid, having been separated by 0.01 seconds in qualifying, at one of Formula 1’s most historic circuits with the title on the line.
It should be the sport’s ideal situation, but of course we know the championship is really in its final throes.
But that in itself is a fascinating prospect.
The driver starting from pole has the chance to seal the title. The driver starting alongside him has nothing to lose and only pride to gain.
Qualifying Highlights – Bathurst | 01:35
If Leclerc wins the race, he can force the championship into another round. It’s a fruitless exercise given the odds will be stacked dramatically against him at the next round in the United States, but you have to be in it to win it.
But after the season he’s had, he just wants to win to use the final rounds of the year as a springboard to a hopefully more consistent 2023.
Verstappen, on the other hand, wants to claim the title at the home race of engine supplier Honda, which has played such a substantial part in propelling him to title contention in the last two seasons.
But he also wants a clean weekend after a season-worst performance in Singapore.
“We do need a perfect race to be able to win it tomorrow,” Verstappen said.
The character of the battle between these two drivers has changed in the final rounds of the championship. What that means for the Japanese Grand Prix will be fascinating.
NORRIS BACKTRACKS ON ACCUSATIONS OF UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT
Verstappen’s mission to execute a clean weekend almost came undone before he’d even had the chance to set a lap for pole in his messy near crash with Norris as they prepared for their first flying laps in Q3.
Verstappen was travelling slowly on the outside of 130R when Norris suddenly closed the gap and attempted to pass him on the left-hand side at the exit of the corner.
But just at that moment Verstappen tried to move left — but his tyres were cold, and he lost control of his car as he got on the power.
His car momentarily slid towards Norris, forcing the McLaren driver to drive across the grass to avoid what would have been an ugly smash.
Both cars continued, but the stewards summoned both drivers afterwards in a threat to Verstappen’s pole.
“It was quite clear he tried to [block me],” Norris said immediately afterwards. “There’s no rule on what you can do, but doing what he did is something that you cannot do.
The Briton said Verstappen “for sure” deserved a penalty.
The moment that cost SVG 3 positions! | 00:47
But Verstappen accused Norris of being disrespectful, noting an agreement among drivers to hold position on warm-up laps during qualifying given the importance of getting the tyres in the right temperature window for a hot lap.
“It‘s a kind of gentlemen’s agreement that you don’t overtake each other before the last corner,” he told Swedish TV station Viaplay. “Ultimately you create those problems yourself by screwing someone else, and I don’t think that’s correct.”
The stewards sided with Norris — an informal agreement among drivers counts for nothing before the regulations — though a reprimand was deemed sufficient, allowing the Dutchman to hold onto pole.
But asked about the incident after the decision, Norris backtracked substantially from his claim of unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Obviously when I’m in the car at the time it looked like what probably most people thought, which is he tried to defend the position and not allow me past,” Norris said.
“It’s scary to be in the situation at the time. If I’d stayed on track and he’d lost more control of the car, it could’ve been a pretty big crash.
“Of course he says he didn’t mean to do anything wrong.
“I don’t really know. I said initially what I thought had happened, but after discussing it, maybe it’s not so much the case.
“Max still apologised to me for doing what happened, for running my Q3.”
It’s a classic case of both drivers coming off looking rash.
Bathurst 1000: Top 10 Shootout cancelled | 01:43
VETTEL’S RETIREMENT REMINDS US WHAT F1 MISSED
Sebastian Vettel’s farewell season has been surprisingly lacking in sentiment considering the four-time champion’s 15-year association with the sport, but this weekend in Japan the reality of his decision finally looked like it was beginning to hit home in a neat reminder of what the sport’s been missing in the last three years without Japan.
Vettel has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Suzuka Circuit. Not only is he a four-time winner at the historic Japanese track, but he also claimed his second championship here in 2011, one of his career-best seasons.
The Aston Martin car has rarely been good enough to make much of an impression this season, and Suzuka, a track that demands downforce efficiency, has never been likely to be on that would play to the car’s strengths. But in the hands of Vettel it came alive.
Teammate Lance Stroll was eliminated in 19th, but Vettel wouldn’t be stopped. He sliced through Q1 and pipped Daniel Ricciardo for a spot in Q3 by just 0.003 seconds to take an unlikely place in the shootout, which he managed to convert into a sensational ninth on the grid with a single hot lap.
“Okay boys, good session,” he said as he returned to the pits. “I really enjoyed it.
“This track is so much better than all the other ones.
“Arigato gozaimasu, Suzuka. Thank you. I will miss this place, but we have tomorrow to score some points.”
Speaking after the session, Vettel said it was a message borne of pure enjoyment that few circuits can generate.
“It was spontaneous,” he said. “We had a very good session and a lot of fun.
“This place has given me so much in terms of enjoyment and feeling that I was feeling so alive in the car, so it seemed like the right thing to say to say thank you.
“I receive so much support here. It’s great energy, and people seem very happy for us to be back — and there are lots of German flags around. It’s good to say thank you.”
The Formula 1 tour continues to expand, but tracks like Suzuka remain rare and valuable. Its challenge and thrill are unsurpassed by any of the modern street tracks, and few purpose-built circuits come close to the all-round challenge offered by Suzuka.
Vettel will miss this track most of all. Hopefully F1 never will.
MERCEDES WAY, WAY OFF
Mercedes enjoyed a night of extremely cautious optimism on Friday after a washed-out practice session put George Russell and Lewis Hamilton a the top of the FP2 time sheet, but the team came crashing back to earth with great velocity on Saturday.
The W13 was way, way off the pace in the dry such that it became extremely clear very early that the team wouldn’t be playing any role in deciding the podium in ordinary circumstances.
The parallels between here and the Belgian Grand Prix are clear. Both tracks demand a similar level of aerodynamic efficiency the car just can’t handle, leaving it way off the pace.
The Mercedes has come to prefer running in high-downforce configuration given its aerodynamic philosophy has left it with a lot of drag it can’t shed in either high-speed or low-speed configuration.
Track like Spa-Francorchamps and Suzuka are compromises between high-downforce sweeps and low-downforce straights — danger territory for Mercedes.
In Belgium, where bumps and elevation also contributed to the car’s problems, both drivers were around two seconds off the pace. At the smoother Suzuka, the car having been better understood in recent rounds, the margin was reduced to a still painful second — enough for Esteban Ocon to sneak ahead of both in P5 and Fernando Alonso to head Russell from P7.
Arguably most concerning is that this is the natural ceiling of the Mercedes at tracks like this rather than it being a set-up problem or technical issue.
“[We made] good set-up changes today, the car felt great through practice and then the changes we made into qualifying were on point,” Hamilton said. “I’m generally really happy with how qualifying went.
“I don’t understand where the time goes, but I know a large [amount] — three-quarters — of that is just on the straights.”
It adds up to a forecast for a long and painful day on Sunday. Notwithstanding overtaking is usually difficult at a circuit like this — albeit the new rules this year might improve matters — neither Mercedes driver will have the straight-line speed to move forward and both might find themselves vulnerable to attacks from behind.
‘I would’ve been happy to go out there’ | 00:54
OCON SUPERB AS ALPINE HITS BACK
Mercedes biggest threat will be Alpine, which turned it on in qualifying to best the German marque in another confident step forward for its car.
The French team installed a new floor last week in Singapore aimed at improving downforce efficiency, and Ocon wielded it to perfection by beating Hamilton to fifth by 0.1 seconds.
Fernando Alonso sandwiched himself between Hamilton and Russell at a little less than 0.2 seconds slower than his teammate.
It’s an important result for Alpine, which wants to immediately hit back after its double engine failure in Singapore that saw it hand McLaren fourth place in the constructors standings by four points.
This is a track that ought to suit McLaren, but Alpine has a car that not only works everywhere but also is moving up the order at certain tracks.
It was a big result for Ocon too, who’s increasingly been holding his own against the experienced Alonso. While he hasn’t achieved the highs of his Spanish teammate and bad luck has kept Fernando’s points haul relatively low, the young Frenchman has been a solid campaigner for Enstone.
And that’s crucial given the news that started the day: that he will be joined by compatriot Pierre Gasly next season.
Gasly and Ocon have a long-running beef dating back to their junior careers, and with Gasly now set to be unshackled from the Red Bull junior team, he’ll be desperate to establish himself on his own terms as a team leader in the upper midfield, regardless of Ocon being the incumbent.
It won’t be enough for Ocon to respond; he must stake his claim early. Result like this, potentially leading to Alpine retaking fourth in the standings — and therefore potentially raking in the prize money that comes with it — will go some way to marking his territory.