Max Verstappen is the driver to beat at Suzuka and Lewis Hamilton says Mercedes will not be challenging him this weekend; Ferrari are more positive about their chances after Friday; Japanese GP Qualifying at 7am Saturday; Grand Prix at 6am Sunday, live on Sky Sports F1
Last Updated: 22/09/23 11:03am
Lewis Hamilton has admitted it was a “real struggle” for him throughout Friday at the Japanese Grand Prix as he finished outside the top 10 in both practice sessions.
Hamilton was only 16th in Practice One and 14th in Practice Two, half a second off Mercedes team-mate George Russell in the later session. Max Verstappen set the pace – 1.141s ahead of Hamilton.
The performance was a stark contract to Mercedes’ competitiveness less than a week ago in Singapore – and partly due to the different Suzuka track layout, which is more high speed and features longer radius corners.
“It was a pretty bad day to be honest. A real struggle out there. A long way off, two seconds off in the first session and over a second off in the second,” said Hamilton.
“Just working away at trying to fix the car, fix the balance. It’s just figuring out what is wrong. We were obviously much closer in the last race but we didn’t have any high-speed (corners) and nowhere near the speeds of the corners here.
“Our car has more often than not been a little bit weaker in the high-speed corners, looking at places like Silverstone for example. An area where we need to work on, getting the car a little bit more in a sweet spot and not overheating our tyres as much.
“We’ll work on it overnight and try to turn it around for [Saturday]. We definitely won’t be winning this weekend but if I can move a little bit further up the order so I can at least back up George, who did not such a bad lap. A tough one.”
Russell continued to have the upper hand on Hamilton when it comes to one-lap pace, as has been the case in recent events. He thinks Mercedes could be anywhere on the front three rows of the grid on Sunday, depending on who can nail their Q3 lap.
“It was a half-reasonable day. Red Bull are back to their normal ways which I don’t think is a major surprise for many. We are not too far off from P2,” said Russell.
“I think there are two tenths in it, so it’s going to be a good fight between Ferrari and Lando, but also cars like Alex (Albon) are also up there in qualifying.
“There seems to be a huge amount of tyre degradation. It’s really weird. Suzuka is one of the best tracks in the world to drive but this year it feels like the tarmac is really broken up and the cars are sliding on top of the surface, so it’s giving a bit of a strange feeling to all the drivers out there.”
Leclerc: Ferrari are not far off Red Bull
It was a much better day for Ferrari as Charles Leclerc was Verstappen’s closest challenger at 0.320s adrift of the championship leader.
Ferrari have brought a new floor to Suzuka and Leclerc revealed he has adjusted his driving style after being beaten by Carlos Sainz at the last three events.
“[The new floor] did what we expected it to do which gave us a little bit of consistency which was good to see. I don’t think there was a lot of performance into it but let’s wait and see, we keep learning about this car,” he commented.
“The last two or three races we learnt a lot and now it’s about putting all of it together which we did in Singapore and we need to do that here too. Red Bull seem to be extremely quick this weekend but I don’t think we are so far off.
“We are understanding our car much better than we did before Zandvoort and that helps us to be on the good side of things because everything is so close with McLaren and Mercedes.
“Whenever we put our car in the right window then we can be in front and that’s what we’ve done the last few races. That is what the target is for [Saturday]. But even if we do everything perfect this weekend I expect Red Bull to be stronger unfortunately.”
Singapore winner Sainz added: “A good surprise to see that over one lap we can be there or thereabouts behind Red Bull and Max. I think it will be a very tight fight with McLaren and Mercedes.
“I think it will be a very tight Qualifying between us six for that second row. If we do a good job and we nail everything then I think we can put ourselves in a good position.
“We need to put everything together with the set-up. We’ve tried so many things it was quite difficult to get into a rhythm because we were changing a lot of things in the car.
“We did it on purpose and hopefully on Saturday I just choose the car that I want to run this weekend and put together everything that I want to do.”
McLaren look strong again
Lando Norris is still looking for a maiden F1 win after coming close last Sunday in Singapore as he finished second.
McLaren’s upgrades worked on the tight street circuit a week ago and their good form has continued into Suzuka, with both drivers now with the full new package.
“The pace has been pretty good, probably one of the closest times we’ve been to Red Bull and the front lot on a Friday so encouraging on a pace point of view,” added Norris.
“But the car feels pretty all over the place. But I think it does for the majority, I think it’s very low grip. I don’t think it’s just us in particular, it’s just a handful.
“For us, if we can just try and calm it down a little bit, bring the balance together then I think we can have a good day (on Saturday). The pace is good but just difficult to drive.
“I doubt it’s going to be pole – the Red Bull is just doing normal Red Bull at the minute. I don’t think we’re far away. I would say we normally get a bit closer come lower fuel, turn the engines up things like that.
“I think challenging for pole is probably quite a big task and probably a bit too far but to try and challenge Mercedes, who maybe didn’t look quite so good today, and challenge the Ferraris and Astons who looked pretty good. I think that is going to be our battle.”
Sky Sports F1’s live Japanese GP schedule
Saturday September 23
- 3.15am: Japanese GP Practice Three (Session starts 3.30am)*
- 6am: Japanese GP Qualifying build-up*
- 7am: Japanese GP Qualifying*
- 9am: Ted’s Qualifying Notebook
- 9.30am: Japanese GP Qualifying highlights
Sunday September 24
- 4.30am: Grand Prix Sunday: Japanese GP build-up*
- 6am: THE JAPANESE GRAND PRIX*
- 8am: Chequered Flag: Japanese GP reaction*
- 9am: Ted’s Notebook
- 9.30am: Japanese GP race replay
- 12pm: Japanese GP highlights
*Also on Sky Sports Main Event
Watch the whole Japanese Grand Prix weekend live on Sky Sports F1. Stream F1 on Sky Sports with NOW. Cancel anytime
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