F1 – Japanese GP – Race
Konnichiwa, MiniFans! A very sunny day welcomed us to Suzuka, as did the very real possibility of Verstappen returning to his old hunting grounds after one race of weakness by Red Bull. Saturday was already a show of how they’re back to full strength and it only remained to see whether the pace seen in the free practices would translate to the race.
Despite a wonderful attempt by both McLarens to put pressure on Verstappen, the Red Bull squeezed past post of them when they stood in formation on either side of him. The battle benefited Norris, who managed to overtake his teammate. Behind them, Pérez’s bad start conditioned those around him, as a few cars had to weave around him and others, like Alonso, took advantage and climbed up to sixth, while his teammate emulated him and took advantage of his fresh softs to gain a good handful of positions. The Mexican driver was called into pits, in his case to change his front wing, as were a few others at the back of the pack.
The start had been mostly clean at the front, despite a scuff or two, but the rear end of the grid was a different story. Impacts between Albon, Ocon and both Alfa Romeo prompted a safety car, as they left bits and pieces of carbon fibre on the surface. Once the marshals cleaned it all up, the race went underway once again. A brief but fierce battle among the Mercedes saw the younger one victorious, but the positions would end up swapped once again. Penalties started to pop up, with 5 seconds awarded to Pérez for overtaking under safety car in the exit of the pit lane, and 5 more for Sargeant for causing a collision.
After a brief spell of calm, yet another safety car, this time its virtual version, had to come out to retrieve debris from a collision between Pérez and Magnussen, which ended up in Red Bull retiring their second car. However, it was short enough so that no one could benefit from it. The battle between the Mercedes resumed, and it had harsh enough movements to prompt an investigation on Hamilton for pushing another car out of the track, but no action came out of it. The front runners started to slowly pit, all of them getting another set of medium tyres, while drivers like Alonso or Hamilton got hards fitted on their cars.
The race finally seemed to settle almost halfway through, as gaps opened up between the drivers and Russell, in his attempt at a one-stopper, finally getting a set of fresh hards that he’d have to nurse to the end. Meanwhile, after some back and forth, Norris managed to get McLaren to swap positions with his teammate, under the guise that their real rival was Russell and they were losing time by having Piastri in front.
A bizarre sight was spotted in the Red Bull garage, as Pérez seemed to be getting ready to go out again, fully decked in his team gear while his mechanics repaired and prepared the car. He eventually went out, seemingly to check the work done on the car and save the team some time in between races, but to everyone’s surprise, he completed his 5-second penalty before retiring again, to cover themselves in the event that the fact that the penalty notification was relayed after he had retired the car, which opened him to maybe needing to comply in the next race. Red Bull had communicated with Race Direction, one of the reasons why it took so long to get him back on track, and completed the penalty so that it wouldn’t be counted as undone and thus opened them up to earning another one.
The second wave of stops kicked off with around twenty laps to go, with attempts at undercuts that only became fruitful in Hamilton’s favour, as Ferrari took its sweet time to call Sainz in, to the point where the Spaniard point blank asked whether they’d been undercut. Meanwhile, Russell’s old tyres were proving not to be a match, as both McLarens easily got rid of him when they reached his rear wing, whereas Sainz had to wait a few laps for his last set of hards, forcing him to drop behind Hamilton.
The last few laps saw no battle at the very front, as the podium had been decided for a while, but Leclerc’s pass on Russell meant he’d get away as well. Both Mercedes were instructed to swap positions, as Hamilton had better pace and the seven-time world champion was instructed to keep Russell in his DRS zone, emulating Sainz’s tactic from Singapore, but the different track meant that Hamilton couldn’t drop back in time to help his teammate against the Ferrari that was now chasing him down. Despite his attempts, Sainz couldn’t get close enough to attempt an overtake and had to be satisfied with finishing in between the British drivers as Verstappen cruised to the finish line in front of both McLarens.
After the small bump in the road that Singapore was for him, Verstappen is back on the top steps, enlarging his lead in the championship and adding yet another victory to his list as Red Bull cemented their constructors’ championship win. Behind him, two McLarens on the podium meant that Piastri had finally scored his first ever top three in F1, opening up a new chapter for the Australian.