Max Verstappen roars back into top gear at Suzuka
Max Verstappen appears set to return to form at the Japanese Grand Prix after posting a blistering time in the opening practice session.
Verstappen’s record 10-race winning run and Red Bull’s unbeaten season came to a shuddering halt last weekend in Singapore, where the team admitted they did not understand their struggles with the car’s set-up around the street circuit.
Lewis Hamilton warned on Thursday the Red Bull car would be “phenomenal” around the high-speed corner circuit at Suzuka and, while practice times must always be treated with caution, it appears the runaway championship leader could dominate again this weekend.
Verstappen, who is closing in on a hat-trick of world titles, was the first car out on track and it took the Dutchman just a handful of laps to set the fastest time in every sector.
He finished the opening running 0.626 seconds clear of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who clinched victory in Singapore.
McLaren had been tipped to be the closest challengers to Red Bull this weekend with George Russell even suggesting they could be favourites.
Lando Norris delivered an impressive final lap to clinch third for the British team, ahead of the second Ferrari of Charles Leclerc and home favourite Yuki Tsunoda in the AlphaTauri.
Oscar Piastri, who extended his McLaren contract this week, claimed seventh just behind the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso.
Red Bull will almost certainly clinch the Constructors’ Championship this weekend at the home race for their engine supplier Honda.
But Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez finished only 11th and a massive 1.396sec adrift of the pace-setter.
Mercedes pair George Russell and Lewis Hamilton struggled badly to repeat the impressive pace they showed last weekend, finishing a lowly 13th and 16th respectively.
The second practice session gets under way at 1500 local time (0700 BST).
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