On one of the most beautiful tracks in the world, which highlights the differences in driving skills among the drivers, Max Verstappen emerges as the leader at the end of the first free practice sessions in Suzuka. He drives an RB19 that excels in the first sector, thanks to excellent stability and precision in cornering. In contrast, Ferrari appears to have focused on its power unit (PU), attempting to load the wings without sacrificing top speed. McLaren, on the other hand, performs well in the first part of the lap but struggles in slower sections.
The data and times from the first day of free practice in Suzuka once again see Max Verstappen leading the pack. After a setback in Singapore, which was due to specific technical reasons, Red Bull seems to have started the Japanese weekend on the right foot right from the morning session, where they immediately showcased one of the strengths of the RB19 for this weekend.
This aspect could prove crucial, especially in qualifying, as all drivers have emphasized the importance of starting as far up the grid as possible, especially considering the track conditions observed on Friday. Contrary to expectations, the teams encountered a low grip situation that negatively impacted their setups prepared before arriving in the Land of the Rising Sun, forcing the drivers to adjust the balance.
Despite being a track that relies on front-end sensitivity and aerodynamic stability, several drivers have actually complained of excessive rear-end sliding. Yuki Tsunoda even suggested that AlphaTauri may have made a configuration mistake in terms of downforce for the weekend. These factors have led to generalized degradation, especially from a thermal perspective.
The work overnight will be crucial. There are teams like Red Bull that seem to have a clear idea of the direction to follow despite experiments in FP1, where a new floor was tested and then approved for both cars. It is interesting to note that the Milton Keynes team has decided to keep two sets of medium compound tires, indicating that they may be expecting a race with two pit stops but at a faster pace. A similar situation is seen at Ferrari, which took advantage of the morning session to test a revised floor, subsequently installed on both cars with the hope that it will provide a more predictable and consistent performance, along with conducting some mechanical tests.
In Suzuka, the Prancing Horse seems to be primarily focused on the power of the Power Unit, sacrificing something in terms of top speed, at least until they can switch to higher engine mappings. This setup should help reduce degradation and give the drivers more confidence in corners. Overall, the drivers have expressed satisfaction with the car’s behavior, especially Charles Leclerc. For Ferrari, tire management over long distances will be crucial, which has been a classic Achilles’ heel of the SF-23. This is in contrast to McLaren, whose two drivers mentioned that the car was difficult to drive despite acknowledging the MCL60’s competitiveness.
Mercedes, on the other hand, appears to be trailing, with their drivers reporting excessive rear-end sliding. Looking at the remaining sets, the team from Brackley has chosen two sets of hard tires, suggesting that they may expect a challenging race in terms of tire degradation. There will be work to be done overnight, especially for Lewis Hamilton, who did not hide his disappointment at the end of a day that saw him far from the front, struggling with overheating tires.
Max Verstappen’s Strength in the First Sector
In his first flying lap on soft tires during the morning, Max Verstappen immediately set a time of 1:32.030 in the first sector, putting at least three-tenths between him and the competition. Furthermore, even though the teams were not seeking maximum performance in FP1, the time he previously achieved on the prototype medium tires would have been enough to beat many rivals. This demonstrates how, at least in the hands of the world champion, the car has shown speed in navigating the fast sequence that characterizes the first part of the lap.
This dominance was confirmed in the afternoon when Max Verstappen lowered his reference time in the same sector to 1:31.505, putting him ahead of Lando Norris by about two and a half tenths and Charles Leclerc by over half a second. It is in this part of the track that the Red Bull driver builds an advantage that helps compensate for what is lost in other areas of the circuit. It’s interesting to note that Red Bull has opted for a lighter wing setup compared to their rivals, confirming how well the floor works in such a complex section of the track, providing great stability and predictable behavior, which has been a weakness of the Ferrari.
In the battle between Ferrari and McLaren, a significant portion of the gap between the Monegasque and Lando Norris is composed of two phases. The first is the sequence of corners 1-2, a section where Leclerc struggled throughout the day, as evidenced by numerous radio messages. The second phase concerns the fast sequence, where different approaches are noticeable. When examining the data, it becomes clear that Charles Leclerc tries to release the throttle early on entry and then quickly gets back on the gas during the turn to help with rotation, in line with his driving style. This approach differs from that of his teammate, who appears much smoother in the sequence, managing to delay the braking phase and carry more speed between turn one and turn two.
Another noteworthy aspect is the exit from turn seven. For now, no one has tried to take it flat out, while in the past season’s qualifying, drivers were able to go through that section without lifting off the throttle. Those who have shown less lift, like Verstappen, have undoubtedly benefited, carrying more speed towards turn eight, with a gap of approximately 6 km/h over Leclerc, extending to 16 km/h over Russell.
Ferrari Relies on Power Unit
The second sector opens again with Max Verstappen in the lead, as he manages to tackle the Degner Curve at a higher speed. However, the situation reverses at turn nine, where rivals start to catch up in terms of entry and cornering speed, especially Lando Norris.
Different approaches can be observed at the hairpin: while McLaren’s British driver tries to stay tighter to the inside near the curb, and Ferrari’s Monegasque follows the opposite approach, attempting to brake as late as possible with wheels straight to cross over and quickly get back on the throttle, Verstappen positions himself between the two. In this case, Ferrari gains traction, while the McLaren team appears to be slightly behind, struggling in one of the feared sections before reaching Suzuka.
In the stretch leading to Spoon, where DRS cannot be used, the Power Unit of Ferrari shines, as it tries to position itself as a reference among the top teams. McLaren’s performance is surprising, as it is close to the other rival teams, including Mercedes, which has opted for a lighter setup. It’s not the first time that on Fridays, the gap in terms of straight-line speed appears reduced before expanding on Saturdays, so it will be interesting to see how the values change with more aggressive engine mappings. This also applies to the long straight in the third sector before 130R, a corner where the Prancing Horse has performed well, especially with Sainz, as seen previously in Copse corner at Silverstone.
Generally, Ferrari has often performed well on single-lap pace, managing to compensate for the grip that is lacking on long runs. A similar behavior was observed at the
Spoon Curve: although Max Verstappen manages to enter the corner with higher speeds, taking full advantage of the RB19’s stability, what is surprising is the behavior of the SF-23 in the second part of the corner, where understeer is more pronounced due to the need to close the corner in a section with camber that pushes the car towards the outside. On a single lap, despite some instability, especially on exit, the Maranello car defended itself well, especially in the hands of Charles Leclerc, who over the years has always shown excellent entry into this part of the track, gaining an advantage over Norris.
The lap concludes with the chicane at the triangle, where different approaches emerge once again: Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc are more aggressive on braking, thus carrying more speed on entry, while Verstappen anticipates the deceleration phase and the braking point to prepare for the second phase of the direction change that leads to the finish line.