The Japanese Grand Prix was a coronation for Red Bull.
But it did not come without some bumps along the way.
Thanks to a masterful afternoon from Max Verstappen — who can likely clinch his third-straight Drivers’ Championship at the Qatar Grand Prix in early October — Red Bull locked up their second-straight Constructors’ Championship. Verstappen managed to fend off the McLaren duo of Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris at the start, navigated an early restart as well, and pulled away for a win by nearly 20 seconds, securing the fastest lap as well.
Here are the winners and losers from the Japanese Grand Prix.
The McLaren duo of Norris and Piastri began the day in the top three, and they finished the day in the top three. Norris came across the line second after starting behind his teammate, while Piastri secured the first podium of his F1 career with a third-place finish, needing a masterful pass of George Russell in the closing stages to get back into podium position.
This is a team that was in sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship back in June, following the Austrian Grand Prix. Since then McLaren has not only pulled past Alpine for fifth, but they are inching ever closer to Aston Martin in the battle for fourth place. The finishes from Norris and Piastri earned the team 33 points on the afternoon — compared with just four for Fernando Alonso’s eighth-place finish — and they leave Suzuka just 49 points behind Aston Martin.
They were 78 points behind Aston Martin when the weekend began.
This was a brutal Sunday for Williams, from start to finish.
The day got off to a bad start thanks to a decision from race officials regarding Logan Sargeant. The rookie driver endured a hard crash in Q1 on Saturday, forcing the team to repair a lot of damage to his FW45. That led to a pit lane start, but a decision ahead of the race from officials tacked on another ten-second penalty, as race officials determined that the team had in effect constructed a new chassis. Given that a driver is only allowed to have two cars available for a race — and a new chassis in effect meant Sargeant now had a third car — he was hit with the additional penalty:
A bad situation grew worse early in the Grand Prix. Alexander Albon and Valtteri Bottas collided shortly after the start, and Albon needed a new front wing. Then Sargeant and Bottas came together, requiring the rookie to take on a new front wing of his own.
Sargeant eventually retired after just 22 laps, with Albon retiring a few laps later.
“It’s bitterly disappointing to see two cars in the garage,” said Williams Team Principal James Vowles following the race.
Again, the big-picture context focuses on Sargeant, and his status for 2024. The second seat at Williams is the only open spot on the grid for next year, with the other 19 spots solidified for next season. Another crash in qualifying, another DNF on Sunday (his third of the season and second over his last four races), and the pressure continues to mount.
It may not seem like much, but the Scuderia chipped away a tiny bit more at Mercedes’ lead over them on Sunday. And in their battle for second in the Constructors’ Championship, every point counts.
A fourth-place finish from Charles Leclerc, coupled with a sixth-place finish from Carlos Sainz Jr., secured 20 points for Ferrari. As for Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton’s fifth-place finish, coupled with the seventh-place finish for George Russell, saw the Silver Arrows leave Suzuka with 16 points on the afternoon.
That adds up to a four-point gain for Ferrari, closing the gap between the two teams to just 20 points.
Following the Dutch Grand Prix a few weeks ago, Ferrari found themselves in fourth place, 54 points behind Mercedes. But this is now a true fight for second, and both teams are well aware of what is at stake.
“We know how important the battle for second in the Constructors’ Championship is. I know how hard everyone at Brackley and Brixworth is working to achieve that. [Minimizing] our points loss to Ferrari today was critical,” said Hamilton in the team’s post-race report. There is still a long way to go until the end of the season.”
“Obviously, we can’t be happy with a fourth and a sixth place but, having gained some ground on our closest rivals, we will stay [focused] and prepare to give our very best at the upcoming races,” said Ferrari Team Principal Frédéric Vasseur.
Losers: Fans hoping for The Max Verstappen Podcast
Ok we are going to lean into a bit here.
The cooldown room before the podium session at each grand prix has taken on a new name: The Max Verstappen Podcast. Given Verstappen’s almost constant presence in that room, the sight of Verstappen and two other drivers watching highlights and talking about the race has led to that moniker.
Formula 1 even leaned into the bit last month, posting this cutup titled “Best of the ‘Unofficial Max Verstappen Podcast’ So Far.”
Following the results at the Japanese Grand Prix second-place finisher Norris posted this marked-up image of the latest episode, leaning into the bit as well:
There is just one problem.
Apparently Verstappen does not like podcasts.
Verstappen elaborated on podcasts in the post-race press conference.
“Yeah, I don’t even know who came up with that because I don’t even like podcasts, they make me fall asleep. So I don’t know. Maybe we can call it something different. Or come up with something a bit more fun.”
So, for those fans hoping for The Max Verstappen Podcast, you might want to reset your expectations.
Winner: Max Verstappen
Speaking of the race winner …
After struggling last week in the Singapore Grand Prix, Verstappen seemed like a man on a mission throughout this week. In the pre-race show on F1TV noted F1 journalist Will Buxton outlined how Verstappen’s thunderous lap in Q3 to secure pole position highlighted just how talented a driver he is, and just how willing he is to push his car to the ultimate limits.
That masterclass continued on Sunday, as Verstappen slammed the door on any thoughts of a McLaren lead at the start, fending off Norris and Piastri as the race began and putting himself in position to pull away from the field over the course of the race.
Sunday marked the 13th win of his season, and he is now just one win away from matching his own record of 14 victories in a calendar year. With six races remaining, there is every reason to believe he will not just reach that mark, but set a new record at some point this season.
The win also locked up the Constructors’ Championship for Red Bull, something Team Principal Christian Horner told his driver shortly after Verstappen crossed the line: “Max that was absolutely fantastic,” said Horner. “You were 19.4s ahead of the rest of the field and that wins our sixth constructors’ championship.”
As for his third-straight Drivers’ Championship, that has to wait a little while longer, but Verstappen can lock that up on Saturday during the Qatar Grand Prix at the start of October. All he needs is a third-place finish, or better, in the F1 Sprint race that weekend to put both hands on the trophy.
Loser: Sergio Pérez
Yes, with Red Bull winning the title it was a good day for both their drivers.
But we have to talk a little about Pérez’s day, or perhaps his “Cole Trickle Afternoon.”
It did not get off to the best start, as Pérez collided with Hamilton on the opening lap and had to pit for a new front wing, which dropped him back into last place. He started to battle back, but was then word came that he was under investigation for a “safety car infringement.”
Things were just getting started for him.
Moments later, word came that he was being hit with a five-second penalty for the “safety car infringement.” Following that, perhaps due to some impatience, he tried an aggressive move to the inside of Turn 11 against Kevin Magnussen on Lap 12, hitting the back of Magnussen’s Haas and causing damage to the second front wing on his RB19.
It was the second time in two races he tried an aggressive move like this. At the Singapore Grand Prix he tried a late lunge inside of Albon on Lap 58. That move knocked Albon out of the points, and Pérez was hit for a five-second penalty, along with one point on his Super License, for causing the collision.
Returning to Suzuka, Pérez was forced to pit for a second time, and take on a second front wing. He came back out on the track, but the decision was made to retire his car on Lap 15.
At least it was, for a while. Because 24 laps later Red Bull sent him back out on the track, on Lap 39. The reason? He had not yet served his five-second penalty, and if he finished the day without doing so, he would face a grid drop at the Qatar Grand Prix.
You can expect to hear a little more about this in the coming days, I am sure:
Can think of the wording of a few rules that might need a slight tighten up after this weekend.
— Will Buxton (@wbuxtonofficial) September 24, 2023
But Pérez’s day mercifully came to an end a few short laps later, having served his penalty.
Now, he can celebrate with his team, but this has been another tough stretch for the driver. His eight-place finish in Singapore, and now a DNF in Japan, have come while Hamilton has closed the gap in the standings. Following Singapore Pérez had a 43-point lead over the Mercedes driver. Now that is down to just 33 points.
With Red Bull having locked up the Constructors’ Championship, and Verstappen virtually guaranteed to secure the Drivers’ next weekend, the team may very well focus on getting Pérez second in the Drivers’ down the stretch, a feat that eluded him a season ago.
And was the impetus for some closed-door meetings among the team a year ago.
But to pull that off, Red Bull will need him to be perfect down the stretch.
And not “Cole Trickle Perfect:”
Winners: Red Bull
Everything with Pérez aside, this was a moment of triumph for Red Bull.
They have been the dominant team this year, with the dominant driver, and they have a new shiny trophy coming their way.