After the chaos in Singapore, many were expecting a return to the norm at Japan’s Suzuka track. That we got, but that didn’t mean that this race was without plenty of mayhem. The weekend already began with a turbulent start with qualifying, when Logan Sargeant managed to crash out in Q1 and caused so much damage that the Williams engineers essentially built a third car with all the new parts they had to use. This meant that the American driver was given a 10-second penalty and had to start his race from the pit lane – not a fantastic start for the only driver on the grid with an unconfirmed seat for 2024.
Qualifying did, however, yield some exciting results for fans of McLaren as while Max Verstappen (of course) took pole position once more, the rookie driver in papaya, Oscar Piastri, took second – the first time he was starting on the front row in his F1 career. His teammate, Lando Norris, took third, being outqualified by Piastri for the fourth time this season.
When the lights went out at the start of the race, Piastri and Norris both got off to good starts, Norris charging around the outside of Verstappen’s Red Bull, almost looking as though he could get ahead. But Verstappen managed to pull ahead, leaving Norris in second and Piastri in third.
Behind them, the midfield drivers were wreaking havoc upon each other. Carlos Sainz drove ahead towards Charles Leclerc which pushed Sergio Pérez wide into Lewis Hamilton, who was subsequently pushed onto the grass. Further back, an incident involving Valtteri Bottas and Alex Albon resulted in the Thai driver going flying – it was a miracle that he managed to get the car back into a straight line. However, the resulting damage to his car and debris left on the track saw himself, Bottas, Zhou Guanyu and Esteban Ocon all having to pit at the end of the first lap. The safety car was brought out for lap two and three, under which Pérez and Bottas pitted for new front wings.
By lap four, the green flag was waved and the race got going again. Verstappen rocketed ahead of the McLarens behind him. The restart was relatively uneventful, but of course, peace is only temporary in Formula 1. In lap five, Sargeant collided with Bottas at the hairpin after locking up and driving straight into the Finnish driver. He was later given a five-second penalty for this incident, another bump in the road for the Williams team.
Elsewhere, the Mercedes cars were battling it out between themselves for seventh position. George Russell dive-bombed Hamilton and got ahead of the seven-time world champion. However, after driving over some debris on the track, Russell lost his position to his teammate, dropping into eighth.
In lap nine, Bottas was forced to retire due to damage sustained from his collision with Sargeant. However, the collisions wouldn’t end there. Three laps later, Red Bull driver Sergio Pérez lunged down the inside of Kevin Magnussen’s Haas at one of the turns and launched himself straight into the car of the Danish driver. The following lap, the virtual safety car was brought out and Pérez pitted yet again for a new front wing. Unsurprisingly, Pérez reported that the car didn’t feel right and during lap 15, he was told to retire his Red Bull.
The virtual safety car also came in during lap 15 and the race resumed. With Pérez now out of the race, it seemed as though the on-track antics would come to an end – this was not the case. The Mercedes drivers decided that now was the perfect time to recreate what the Ferraris did in the final lap of Monza 2023 – they started fighting with each other quite aggressively, with Hamilton going wide over the second Degner curve and Russell trying to get past through the spoon. However, Hamilton did not give him space and both Mercedes cars were forced off the track. Russell clearly was unhappy with this, asking over his radio, “who do we want to fight here, each other or the others?” This fight between the two teammates likely raised the heart rate of Toto Wolff and led some to speculate whether this could be the return of Brocedes (I’m not sure F1 fans would be able to handle that emotionally).
On lap 17, Verstappen pitted and exited in fifth, meaning that Norris was now leading the race. He then pitted along with Leclerc, both having 2.5-second pit stops, and came out seventh and ninth respectively. This left Russell now in first position, but Verstappen was closing in, easily getting past the Mercedes driver who was on old medium tyres on lap 19. Sainz pitted this lap and exited in eighth, soon easily getting past Fernando Alonso into seventh. Alonso was not happy about this and said over his team radio that “you’ve thrown me to the lions by stopping that early, mate. Unbelievable”, having been told to pit on only lap 12. This seemed accurate, as Hamilton also swept past the Aston Martin at the 130R corner. On lap 22, there was a mystery retirement from Alonso’s teammate Lance Stroll, but it was later revealed that he had retired due to a rear-wing failure. Not a fantastic day for Aston Martin at a track Alonso loves so much.
By lap 25, Russell had pitted, meaning that the top three drivers were now Verstappen, Piastri and Norris. Both McLarens looked strong, but Norris was not happy being stuck behind his slightly slower teammate, saying “the longer I spend behind now, the worse you’re going to make the race for me.” The following lap, after yet another retirement – this time Williams’ Logan Sargeant (oh dear) – Norris asked his engineer “what’s he doing?” as Piastri had not yet let his teammate pass. Norris was not happy, saying “it’s just ruining the race now. If he wants George to beat us then…” In my opinion, this was fair – Norris was going faster and was on a better tyre than Piastri, meaning he had a better chance at getting further away from the rest of the pack. On lap 27, the team order seemed to have been given and Piastri gave his teammate the position, Norris storming ahead.
This lap saw yet another retirement; a bad day for Williams as Albon also retired from residual damage after earlier race incidents. However, with this retirement came an unretirement from Pérez, who was now sitting back inside his Red Bull car. It seemed as though he was going to unretire after 40 minutes in the garage to take his five-second penalty and avoid a grid penalty for the next race in Qatar. It was during lap 38, when Verstappen came into the pits for new hard tyres, that one of the funniest camera shots of this season was born – a pan from Verstappen zooming out of his pit box to Pérez just sat alone in his car, waiting to go back onto the track.
During the next lap, Pérez left his garage and went back onto the track, now over 20 laps down on the rest of the grid. While this move from Red Bull was technically legal, it does put into question the current F1 penalty system – Pérez essentially T-boned Magnussen and rightfully got a penalty, but was then allowed to serve it during a race from which he had already retired. It was a decision Red Bull was totally within their right to make, however, this has lead drivers and other people in the F1 sphere to call on the FIA for the penalty system to be reviewed.
On lap 42, Pérez retired his car once more. Amongst the chaos of Red Bull’s antics, Russell and Piastri had been battling for third. Piastri and Norris, who had pitted in laps 36 and 37, had come out in fourth and fifth, with Russell in third. Norris got past Russell easily on lap 38, but Piastri was battling with the British Mercedes driver who was defending his position well. On lap 42, they were still battling, but now Piastri had DRS and managed to get past Russell, driving far ahead of his opponent.
The fight was not over for Russell, however, who was now left to battle Leclerc’s Ferrari behind him. On lap 45, Leclerc went the long way around on turn one and got ahead of Russell into fourth. It continued to go backwards for Russell, who was instructed in lap 49 to give his position to Hamilton. He was not happy, as this now left Russell vulnerable to the speedy Ferrari of Sainz behind him, who overtook him at turn one of lap 50. Some interesting strategic decisions from Mercedes there, but a happy overtake for the previous race champion Sainz.
As the chequered flag waved over lap 53, Verstappen came back to claim the familiar first position, with Norris in second, and Piastri in third – the rookie’s first-ever F1 podium. Leclerc came in fourth, with Hamilton behind in fifth, Sainz in sixth, Russel in seventh, Alonso in eighth, Ocon in ninth and Gasly in 10th. This victory for Verstappen meant that Red Bull were now mathematically unbeatable in the constructors’ championship, giving them their sixth victory in team history.
Despite the chaos of this race, with drivers colliding all over the place and a Red Bull double DNF from Pérez (the source of many funny memes), it was a happy ending for fans of the Milton Keynes-based team and fans in papaya. Verstappen drove fantastically, recovering well from a disappointing weekend in Singapore. However, for me, Piastri and Norris were most impressive. Despite losing his position to Norris, Piastri drove very strongly and secured his first podium in F1 while being a good distance ahead of Leclerc in fourth. Norris also drove incredibly, getting the maximum out of his McLaren and scoring fantastic points for the team.
It was a disappointing weekend for some drivers who decided to drive their cars as though they were in Ben Hur, but it resulted in a constructors’ championship victory for Red Bull and a double podium for McLaren. This race leaves us in anticipation of what we can expect to see from the race in Qatar next race weekend – a neat and tidy race, or more fairground antics?