F1 – Japanese GP – Qualifying

Konnichiwa, MiniFans! It’s back to reality this weekend, as Red Bull has seemingly reclaimed the top spot that they’ve been hogging the whole season during the three free practices. The quest to redeem themselves started on early on the weekend, even almost showing off with the new prototypes for next year’s tyres while everyone else was busy figuring out their pace and places to improve their lap times.

The very start of Q1 didn’t interest many drivers, as only Stroll and Lawson left the pitlane as soon as the light turned green, with the Red Bull drivers kicking off the slow but steady trickle of cars onto the track a few minutes in. They soon settled at the top, with McLaren eventually splitting them when they clocked in their first laps, leaving Mercedes almost half a second behind. However, their little battle, as well as Ferrari’s first laps, got interrupted by a red flag, which needed to come out to repair the barriers and retrieve Sargeant’s Williams from the last corner.

When the session was resumed, with around half of it to go, Ferrari were the first ones out, as their earlier attempts had gotten interrupted, and they both easily settled near the top as a wave of relief washed over their garage. The tighter times thanks to the track improving meant that a majority of the drivers needed to head back out, fiercely battling it out to decide who’d go on and who’d stay, but not offering anything unusual. The eliminated drivers in Q1 were Bottas (P16), Stroll (P17), Hulkenberg (P18), Zhou (P19) and Sargeant (P20, no time set).

It was once again a Verstappen show since the very beginning of Q2, as the only one who could manage to get closer to him in the first half, but still almost four tenths away, was his teammate, despite Pérez using fresh tyres and Verstappen used ones. McLaren once again split them apart, but it still remained to see whether anyone could actually threaten the Dutchman’s pole aspirations, bar a self-sabotage.

The top three chose not to come out to try and lower their times, as they knew they were safe, even if it meant relinquishing first place for Verstappen. Meanwhile, the positions around tenth place were where the party was at, as last minute shuffles kicked Lawson out by half a tenth and barely saved Alonso, whose record of being the only driver in every Q3 in 2023 continues on. The eliminated drivers in Q2 were Lawson (P11), Gasly (P12), Albon (P13), Ocon (P14) and Magnussen (P15).

Only Verstappen and both McLarens had the chance to use an extra fresh set of softs in Q3, saved over the previous sessions. In his first try with them, Verstappen managed to open up a half second gap to the McLarens, while his teammate, on used tyres, was in fourth, a second and a half away. The pole position was clearly unreachable by anyone but Verstappen, while McLaren seemed to have claimed second and third.

Everyone’s last  attempts, these ones with them fitting their fresh softs, weren’t enough to fight the establishment, as Verstappen kept lowering his time, but it did temporarily get Ferrari right behind McLaren. Pérez could only split the Ferrari duo, while Mercedes, despite having looked somewhat strong during the weekend, needed to accept that their laps hadn’t been enough to beat any of their direct competitors.

After what seemed like a bad dream for the championship leaders in Singapore, with both Red Bulls not making it into Q3, Suzuka has clearly brought them back to the top. McLaren, following its improvement line since the horrible start to the season, managed to lock the first positions that Verstappen left free, being the only ones letting viewers dream with a second consecutive non-Verstappen win.

MiniDrivers – F1
2023 Japanese GP