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Max Verstappen back on track after ruthless win at F1 Japanese Grand Prix
F1 Sport

Max Verstappen back on track after ruthless win at F1 Japanese Grand Prix

Max Verstappen shone in the spring sunshine of the Japanese Grand Prix’s new early season slot with a victory that served as salutary reminder he is firmly on course for his fourth world championship, and on this form he looks all but unstoppable.

The race has moved from its traditional place at the back end of the calendar for the first time since it was first held here in 1987 and the date has coincided with the Japanese sakura – cherry blossom – season. The trees have adorned the track with a riot of pinks and whites, offering a colourful backdrop for amateur snappers in their hordes and TV ­producers alike. However, hopes that there would be a matching new bloom of competition on the track were all too swiftly and decisively dashed on the glorious figure‑of‑eight circuit.

Verstappen, who had started from pole, won at a canter, trouble‑free and unchallenged out front. So much so that it appeared it had not even inspired a superlative from the Dutchman who, as has been the case already this season, is taking the victories very much in his stride.

“Very nice, everything just went really well,” he said after climbing from the cockpit. “Pit stops, the strategy, it couldn’t have been any better.” He had, it seemed, barely ­broken a sweat on what he described ­repeatedly as a “nice” drive. Not quite the gladiatorial triumph of a champion yelling “Are you not entertained?” that F1 is trying to sell to the recent surge in new fans.

If there is any jeopardy for the world champion at the moment, he is untroubled by it. “­Whenever I needed to go faster I could, ­whenever I needed to look after my tyres, I could,” he said with the same calm, controlled and underwhelming understatement with which he dominated the race.

This was business as usual for Verstappen, and with a decidedly ominous air. Four races of a record 24‑race season have been completed, the remaining 20 stretch long into the year and whereas for Verstappen this will have the pleasing trappings of a victory march, or a nice stroll as he might prefer it, it looks like something of a long old slog for his rivals.

The Red Bull driver comfortably beat his teammate, Sergio PĂ©rez, into second place with a 12.5sec advantage in a race red-flagged on the first lap after Daniel Ricciardo and Alex Albon tangled on entering turn three, leaving both in the wall. After very heavy, dramatic impacts both drivers emerged unhurt.

Max Verstappen leads the way as the cherry blossom provides a picturesque setting.View image in fullscreen

The nearest challenger not ­driving a Red Bull was Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in third and he was 20sec down the road. After Sainz had won at the previous round in Australia, when ­Verstappen went out with a brake ­failure, there had been optimism that Ferrari were perhaps in the opening phase of mounting a fightback.

There was to be no such resurgence; instead consolidation of the control Verstappen has exerted over the season. He has won three of the races with ease and his consistency remains remarkable. Since the Miami GP last year he has been beaten only twice, both times by Sainz, once in Singapore in 2023 and then in ­Melbourne, a sequence of ­unprecedented dominance.

Suzuka plays to the strengths of the Red Bull, which is beautifully ­balanced through the fast corners, and the highly abrasive surface is miti­gated by the car’s delicate ­handling of its tyres. Yet Verstappen remains very much in a class of his own. There is almost certainly more in the bank for him to draw on were it required. This season, as with last year and 2022, once he has consolidated a healthy lead, he can ease off from caning the car to the flag.

The upgrades Red Bull brought to the meeting appear to have paid off well, demonstrating they will not be standing still and offering any easy opportunities to catch up. With their grip on the championship well established, this was an indi­cation that they intend to maintain the advantage, particularly in these early phases, before potentially switching resources to next year’s car. That is a sobering ­consideration for the neutral in a fight where ­Verstappen leads PĂ©rez by 13 points in the ­drivers’ championship.

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Where Verstappen was on rails, Mercedes laboured, with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton making little headway, finishing seventh and ninth respectively. The team principal, Toto Wolff, still considered the result positive given how far they were off the pace in Japan last year. Mercedes believe their work on the car has yielded genuine steps forward but their fight, as Wolff conceded, is very much to try to catch Ferrari and McLaren for second.

Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo walks away from his car after crashing with Alex Albon on lap one of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.View image in fullscreen

McLaren will rue pitting Lando Norris too early for his second stop, leaving him somewhat at the mercy of the Ferraris, and he was beaten into fifth by Sainz and Charles Leclerc, who claimed fourth on a one-stopper.

Their runs were as bit-part ­players nonetheless and it is impossible to ignore the elephant that dominates the room: that as much as the ­chasing pack are vying with each other, ­Verstappen has reasserted his iron grip on the only business that really matters.

The local hero Yuki Tsunoda provided some lively entertainment in the midfield, making two dashing passes for position in the Esses, a brave proposition at the best of times, and deserved of the acclaim of the crowd on his way to taking 10th place.

Fernando Alonso was sixth for Aston Martin and Oscar Piastri eighth for McLaren.

Source: theguardian.com