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Max Verstappen continues qualifying dominance to take Japanese GP pole
F1 Sport

Max Verstappen continues qualifying dominance to take Japanese GP pole

With four from four, Max Verstappen remains unbeaten over the single lap this season having claimed pole for the Japanese Grand Prix. Imperious at a track for which he has a great affection, the world champion put his Red Bull through its paces at Suzuka with an ease that belies this formidable challenge. With his teammate Sergio Pérez also claiming second, there was an undeniable sense that Red Bull’s early season superiority was confirmed with no little finality in Japan.

Verstappen has taken the top spot at all four meetings this season and he did not look at any time that he had taken his eye off the ball this weekend in Suzuka. He was pushed hard by Pérez who was six-hundredths back but the closest of the rest of the field was McLaren’s Lando Norris, who put in a fine run to take third but was still almost three-tenths off the front two.

Norris’s assessment of the opposition was telling as to how Suzuka once more emphasised the real pecking order in F1 this season. The 26-year-old was pleased to have claimed his best grid place of the year but was resigned to the fact that race day surely already belonged to the Red Bulls.

Last year when the McLaren were also very strong in Suzuka he and teammate Oscar Piastri, who finished sixth, went three abreast with Verstappen through turn one, only for the Dutchman to hold his place. Another such attack was the best Norris was hoping for on Sunday.

“Last year I was side by side with Max into turn one so hopefully try and do that but it is tricky, they are quick,” he said. “They complained about their race pace [in practice] but I don’t think they have had a bad race in the last four or five years. They are going to be good tomorrow.”

With Japan the fourth race of the season and in broad terms the best indicator yet for real form for the season ahead, Norris acknowledged that the pace Red Bull was not to be denied and that the best the opposition might hope for was claiming a podium, as he and Piastri managed last season.

“We proved last year we could keep in touch and not be miles behind so that will be out target tomorrow but realistically we are too far away to challenge them,” he said. “They are too quick for us. Yes we are quicker in quali but in the race they always pull away a bit more, I am always realistic I think our competition is with the guys behind.”

Max Verstappen and Lando Norris shake hands during qualifying ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit on 6 April 2024 in SuzukaView image in fullscreen

Verstappen’s 36th career pole is exactly the comeback he wanted after being enormously disappointed at the brake failure which cost him a likely win at the last round in Australia. It is also his third in a row in Japan having converted the previous two to dominant wins at Suzuka, the 26-year-old will be expectant of once more leading from the off on Sunday.

The Red Bull is singularly well-suited to the high-speed, high-energy circuit with its preponderance of fast corners, while the car, which is enormously forgiving of its tyres, will be at an advantage on what is an abrasive high-degradation surface.

The team also brought their first series of upgrades of the season to this meeting, including new cooling inlets, and updates to the floor and brakes. After what has already been a formidably strong start, they appear to have maintained their advantage over their rivals.

Verstappen had opened strongly in Q3, by the end of his first hot lap the Dutchman had a substantial advantage. He finished almost four-tenths up on Pérez, until Norris upped the ante putting his McLaren two and half tenths back in second.

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On the final runs, Verstappen was once more in control but was at least given a decent run by his teammate. The world champion opened by going even quicker through the first sector but was beaten by Pérez through the middle, yet an improvement in the final part of the lap proved decisive and his time of 1minute 28.197seconds was just six hundredths up on his teammate. Norris could not improve however but had done enough to claim an impressive third.

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were in seventh and ninth for Mercedes but Hamilton declared himself satisfied nonetheless. He described the car as the “nicest it’s felt over the last three years” and that its performance, especially in the first sector, where balance is key was hugely encouraging and gave him great information to feed back to the team on its current limitations. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was in fourth and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso in fifth.

Despite wins at the opening two rounds, after the DNF in Australia Verstappen only leads the drivers’ championship by four points from Charles Leclerc, with Red Bull also leading Ferrari by only four points in the constructors’ table.

The local hero Yuki Tsunoda was given a rousing reception for putting his RB into Q3 and finished in tenth place. Oscar Piastri was in sixth for McLaren and Leclerc in eighth for Ferrari. Russell was investigated for an unsafe release into the pit lane during Q1 and Mercedes were given a €5,000 fine.

Daniel Ricciardo was 11th for RB, Nico Hülkenberg 12th for Haas, Valtteri Bottas 13th for Sauber, Alex Albon 14th for Williams and Esteban Ocon 15th for Alpine. Lance Stroll was in 16th for Aston Martin, Pierre Gasly in 17th for Alpine, Kevin Magnussen in 18th for Haas, Logan Sargeant 19th for Williams and Guanyu Zhou 20th for Sauber.

Source: theguardian.com