There’s just no stopping Max Verstappen — 2024 Japanese & Chinese GP F1 reports

While Max Verstappen remains in a league of his own, Mark Hughes turns his attention to more interesting F1 matters – the battle for second

Off he goes again – Max Verstappen powers away at Suzuka after a re-start

Off he goes again – Max Verstappen powers away at Suzuka after a re-start

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As the Max Verstappen/Red Bull steamroller of the world championship continues, the intrigue is all about what is going on behind. Behind Verstappen on track and behind the scenes at Red Bull.

“The prospect of Verstappen leaving the team has receded”

The prospect of Verstappen leaving the team has receded somewhat. Following his comments earlier in the year that he’d be leaving if Helmut Marko was no longer there, and with the subsequent confirmation that Marko is staying, so Verstappen has said he “is going nowhere”. But as speculation remains about the partnership’s future, so it continues its assault on the Formula 1 record books. As F1 moved from Australia to Asia for the Japanese and Chinese races, that domination looked unassailable.

George Russell locks up  in the early stages of the Japanese GP.

George Russell locks up in the early stages of the Japanese GP.

Just like last year when Verstappen arrived in Suzuka on the back of a rare defeat (at the hand of Carlos Sainz again), he hit back very hard. Just like last year, he was 20sec clear of the best non-Red Bull (Sainz) at the flag. This time he had his team-mate Sergio Pérez cushioning him from the others.

It wasn’t a very complex race. The performance hierarchy was very clear and the cars ultimately settled down into that order. But Lando Norris had over-qualified the McLaren, starting from third on the grid ahead of Sainz’s Ferrari, a position it maintained down to the first corner, as Verstappen eased himself clear of Pérez at the front. In fact this all happened twice, for the first race was red-flagged almost immediately following a heavy crash between Daniel Ricciardo’s RB and Alex Albon’s Williams, which took them both out.

Because this is a track where you need a lap time advantage of around 1sec to be able to overtake, Sainz was unable to find a way past Norris in the first stint despite being clearly quicker. In this way Norris just made things even easier for the Red Bull pair, allowing them to ease out a gap without having to overstress their tyres, which degrade here at a very high rate.

another day, another bottle of champagne sprayed by Max

Another day, another bottle of champagne sprayed by Max

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The stalemate was broken by Sainz applying undercut pressure on Norris as the window opened for the first pitstops of this two-stop race. With Norris unable to get free of the Ferrari, McLaren brought him in as early as lap 11 to defend from the threat. That jumped him temporarily ahead of Sainz and Pérez, as they stayed out longer on their original tyres, but would leave him unable to keep them from passing on track once they got onto their new rubber. Had Sainz not been so delayed by Norris in that first stint, he may have been able to pressure Pérez for second but fell short by 8sec at the flag, with Pérez in turn 12sec behind his victorious team-mate Verstappen who has now won the last three Japanese Grands Prix.

In his chase of Pérez, Sainz was waved through by team-mate Charles Leclerc, as Sainz’s two-stop and Leclerc’s one-stop strategies interweaved. Sainz’s pressuring of McLaren into stopping Norris early at the first stops meant he was always struggling with tyre degradation in the remaining distance. After making his second stop he was unable to repass Leclerc who did a remarkable job combining pace with tyre longevity on his way to fourth.

The Red Bulls lead at the start of the Chinese GP – last run in 2019, eight months before the first recorded Covid case

The Red Bulls lead at the start of the Chinese GP – last run in 2019, eight months before the first recorded Covid case

Fernando Alonso had Oscar Piastri’s McLaren for company almost throughout but they were being caught late in the race by the new-tyred Mercedes of George Russell. Alonso backed off to get Piastri into his DRS zone so as to help keep Russell behind them both. Russell managed to pierce Piastri’s defences on the final lap but Alonso’s sixth place was out of reach. Mercedes had compromised its chances by switching to hard tyres on the restart in an attempt at one-stopping, but the tyres were not only gripless on the Merc but high-wearing too, forcing both Russell and Lewis Hamilton to bale out of the one-stop attempt. Hamilton, who took some front wing damage on the first lap, voluntarily allowed Russell past and limped home a very dispirited ninth.

Formula 1 returned to the Shanghai track for the first time in five years. This was number one of the season’s six sprint events, the format for which had been changed. Qualifying for the sprint is now held on Friday with the sprint race following on Saturday morning. Cars can now be taken out of parc fermé after the sprint race in readiness for qualifying for the main event later in the day. So the set up of the cars can now be changed after the sprint.

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso is yet to find a podium place

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso is yet to find a podium place

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Rain in the final session of sprint qualifying mixed the grid up beautifully into those cars which could get instant tyre temperature (McLaren, Mercedes and Aston Martin) and those which struggled to do that (Red Bull and Ferrari). Norris put his McLaren on pole by the resounding margin of 1.3sec, ahead of Hamilton, Alonso, Verstappen and the Ferraris, with Sainz ahead of Leclerc – and only then Pérez in the other Red Bull.

But the Saturday sprint race was held in the dry and normal service was resumed. Hamilton led initially, as Norris ran wide at Turn 1-2, refusing to surrender a position he’d already lost and dropping several places. Verstappen was past Alonso after seven laps and took the lead from Hamilton two laps later. In the remaining 10 laps he pulled out 10sec. Alonso’s tyres wilted and as Sainz pounced upon him he refused to yield and took a puncture for his troubles and in this melee Pérez was able to pass them both for third.

Verstappen’s dominance continued into qualifying for the main event as he took pole by 0.3sec ahead of team-mate Pérez. Alonso had qualified the Aston third ahead of the McLarens and Ferraris. Hamilton had opted to try an extreme set up on his Mercedes which proved disastrous but his failure to get out of Q1 was more to do with him running wide at the hairpin on the crucial lap and losing around 0.4sec. Russell qualified the sister W15 eighth as Mercedes struggled to understand its car.

cheers for the home talent Zhou Guanyu

Cheers for the home talent Zhou Guanyu

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“Red Bull had decided on an aggressive two-stop strategy”

Alonso made a starring cameo in the main event, out-accelerating Pérez and even taking a look at Verstappen as they rounded the long Turn 1-2. Verstappen left the field behind at around 1sec per lap which meant that by the time Pérez had found a way by the Aston and its degrading tyres, Verstappen was already 5.5sec up the road. Red Bull had decided upon an aggressive two-stop strategy for both cars and both were brought in at the end of lap 13. Verstappen’s lead of 10sec on Pérez had made it feasible to pit them on the same lap without having to leave Pérez waiting. Verstappen rejoined third, with Norris now leading the race from Leclerc, as Alonso had already pitted to be rid of his fading tyres. Such was Verstappen’s exaggerated performance advantage on his new tyres that he was quickly able to pass the Ferrari and McLaren to retake the lead and begin building it again. Pérez rejoined fifth, with Sainz’s pitstop promoting him to fourth and catching Leclerc.

But that battle was called off by a VSC for Valtteri Bottas’s broken-down Sauber, which enabled Norris and Leclerc to pit at an 8sec saving to the pack. Bottas’s car was stuck in gear and as the marshals struggled to move it, so the VSC was replaced by a full safety car period. This was just 10 laps after the Red Bulls had made their first pitstops but they were now obliged to make their second (as to stop later would have meant a great loss of position in the compressed field). The fact that Red Bull had retained both sets of the allocated hard tyres meant this was less disastrous than it might have been and even though it was early, they could now comfortably finish. Verstappen got out leading, with Norris and Leclerc having switched to a one-stop strategy running ahead of the rejoining Pérez.

Verstappen set about building up his lead all over again while Pérez tried in vain for many laps to find a way by Leclerc. This was great news for Norris who was left to concentrate on minimising the stress upon his tyres. “As soon as we got onto the hard tyre Lando was half a second faster,” said a confused Leclerc afterwards. “I don’t understand.” His confusion was based around how much better the Ferrari’s tyre deg had been than the McLaren’s in the sprint (and in the previous races this season). But not on this day as Norris found a beautiful rhythm, just as Verstappen was doing a few seconds ahead of him.

Lewis Hamilton and Lando Norris square up in the early stages of the Shanghai sprint race

Lewis Hamilton and Lando Norris square up in the early stages of the Shanghai sprint race

“Once you’re fighting it’s game over for the tyres. They never come back”

By the time Pérez finally got past Leclerc, there were 17 laps left and Norris was 6sec ahead. It appeared to be a catchable gap for a Red Bull, but Pérez was unable to make any inroads into it at all. “Once you’re fighting it’s game over for the tyres,” Pérez said. “You use so much of your tyre that they never come back. I paid the price but it was the only way I could get by Charles.”

That just crystallised both the challenge and the reason for the serene races of both Verstappen and Norris. The Red Bull’s superiority ensured Norris was never any threat and so both could simply drive to their tyres, without having to actually race. Ferrari had made set-up changes it believed would help protect the rear tyres, increasing the understeer, but it proved counterproductive, leaving a disappointed Leclerc and Sainz fourth and fifth, not far clear of Russell’s Mercedes. Alonso was forced by the timing of the safety car into a three-stop race. Because he’d fitted his only set of hards at his first stop, when the safety car obliged him to stop again none of the remaining sets of softs or mediums could have done the remaining distance. This resulted in a late third stop and a charge back up to seventh, the combination of light fuel on new tyres helping him to the point for the fastest lap of the race.

In China, Lando Norris was on the podium for a second time this season, keeping him in contention with the Ferrari duo

In China, Lando Norris was on the podium for a second time this season, keeping him in contention with the Ferrari duo

Piastri took extensive diffuser damage in the first safety car restart queue, hit by Daniel Ricciardo’s RB which in turn had been hit hard by Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin. Stroll was later penalised but that was of no help to Piastri who limped the damaged car home eighth (or indeed Ricciardo, who was forced to retire after a breakthrough strong performance). Hamilton, starting from the back of the grid after making further set-up changes, soldiered through to ninth but reported that his set-up choices gave him “more understeer than I’ve ever had”. Nico Hülkenberg took the final point in his updated Haas.

As Verstappen stood in parc fermé being interviewed as the winner, there was a touching little display on the main straight, with a place set aside for Zhou Guanyu, the first Chinese F1 driver and here performing in front of a wildly supportive home crowd. He pulled his 14th place Sauber up into the spot, climbed out, removed his helmet and acknowledged the crowd. Then took a few emotional moments with his face in his hands before recalling how he’d been one of the faces in the crowd at the first Chinese Grand Prix, back in 2004 – and now here he was.