Verstappen and Perez pleased with balance in F1 Japanese GP practice; Sainz and Leclerc admit Red Bull favourites for pole

Photo Credit: Red Bull Content Pool
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Normal service resumed at Suzuka on Friday as Max Verstappen topped FP1. With FP2 held in mixed conditions, only the first session gave us a read on how things might pan out in qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

The three-time World Champion topped the times by 0.181s from teammate Sergio Perez.

Speaking after practice, Verstappen explained he was pretty pleased with the balance of the RB20.

“I think it was a good start for us. The balance wasn’t too far out, so I think that’s always a great way to start. But it does look like everyone is a bit closer compared to last year.

“Then in FP2 we couldn’t really do anything. Still a few things to look at, to try, but overall I’m quite happy with that FP1.”

Qualifying has been quite tight so far this season despite Verstappen taking pole at all 3 races to date.

He expects things to be close again on Saturday and Sunday, unlike last year when he romped to the pole and win in truly dominant fashion around the Japanese venue.

“Well, I think in general, already the whole year over one lap it seems like people definitely got closer.

“Of course, the long-run pace, again I have no clue how that will look, but I don’t expect gaps to be like they were last year here at this track.”

Sergio Perez had a far stronger Friday compared to 2023 around Suzuka. Over a second off Verstappen in FP1 and FP2 last September, the Mexican driver was 0.181s slower than his teammate in the only representative session on Friday.

Perez wants to wait and see how tomorrow goes to get the full picture, but he was pleased at how his RB20 was handling in opening practice.

“It was a good session overall. I was pleased with the car, I think we got it in a nice window. We obviously did some changes for FP2 which unfortunately we didn’t get a nice read [on].

“I think we did the most we could in FP1. I think we’re in a very similar boat to a lot of people around us, so I think we’ll wait for tomorrow to have a better read.”

Australian Grand Prix winner Carlos Sainz finished 3rd fastest in first practice, just over 0.2s shy of Max Verstappen. The Spaniard was almost a second off pole when they visited Suzuka last September, so he admits he is surprised in a positive way at the close gap to Red Bull.

Nonetheless, he did give a note of caution as to not knowing what Red Bull ran regarding fuel loads and engine modes.

“Honestly, it’s a bit closer to the Red Bulls than I anticipated or expected, so positive signs in terms of progress made from five months ago to now.

“It’s still obviously FP1. You don’t know what fuel loads and engine modes they’re running. Obviously last year we were eight tenths off in quali, and here to be two tenths off in FP1 was a good feeling or a good starting base. But they’re going to be difficult to beat.”

On the other side of the Ferrari garage, Charles Leclerc was not feeling too optimistic that they can fight for pole position on the basis of practice.

“I’ll do my best [to fight for pole]. This is the target for sure. But in order to do so we need to make sure that we are prepared in the best possible way for tomorrow.

“And at the moment, I still feel like we are lacking a little bit of pace to go and challenge for pole position because Red Bull seems strong, and especially Max until now.”

The 5-time Grand Prix winner also admitted there is quite a bit to find to be in the fight. He placed P6 in FP1, slower than both Mercedes’ and almost 0.3s adrift of teammate Sainz.

“There’s still quite a bit of work to do. But if there’s a special lap to be done, I hope I’ll be the one to do it.”

Photo Credit: Scuderia Ferrari