Leclerc got 'lost' amid Suzuka chaos: 2023 Japanese GP diary


Tsunoda feels full effect of home race reception; Vettel's return creates a real 'buzz'; and how F1 made an example of Williams after another Sargeant fumble. Chris Medland's F1 diary from the Japanese GP paddock

Charles leclerc

Ferrari didn't have winning pace in Suzuka — but for a moment, Leclerc thought he was racing for a podium


Suzuka is always a highlight of the season and the amazing fans had extra reason to celebrate thanks to news relating to Yuki Tsunoda and the return of a hugely popular former driver. But there were also errors from Williams and a very confused Ferrari driver to deal with…


Leclerc doesn’t know where he is

OK, that subheading might need the addition of the words “in the race”, but it was an extremely funny moment either way. Charles Leclerc started fourth and just held on to his starting position after a four-wide moment on the run to Turn 1.

When a virtual safety car was deployed to clear debris at the hairpin, Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri — ahead of Leclerc — came across an ailing Red Bull, and even after doing all of his television interviews and making it to the written media, Leclerc still thought it was Max Verstappen who was slowing.

Related article

“I didn’t even follow what Max did because I saw him stopping at the [virtual] safety car or after the safety car – I don’t know what happened there and I thought he wasn’t in the race anymore,” Leclerc said. “So I thought I was doing a podium until the last lap where I actually looked at the board and I was P4!” Asked if he’d seen a Red Bull in the pitlane, Leclerc replied: “No, [Verstappen] slowed down at one point no? Exit of Turn 14. I think it was the VSC, he basically stopped on the left and we all overtook him…”

Then informed it was Sergio Perez falling a lap down before retiring, the penny finally dropped for the Ferrari driver.

“Ohhh right, OK! That’s what it was, I thought Max was out of the race at that moment, it was just confusing for me.”

We get so used to drivers being fully on top of their race situations and even what’s happening elsewhere that it was refreshingly funny that Leclerc had been wondering how he’d ended up a position further back than he realised.

Sergio Perez Red Bull Ferrari

Charles Leclerc thought he was passing an ailing Verstappen — but it was Perez instead


The Tsunoda effect

Rumours of a Thursday announcement regarding Yuki Tsunoda’s future were rebuffed by Red Bull, saying that there would be no such statement, and for a split second I wondered if a decision on 2024 drivers was going to be delayed until Daniel Ricciardo’s return.

In the end, it was just a pause of 48 hours as AlphaTauri confirmed Tsunoda and Ricciardo for next year on Saturday morning, boosting the home hero’s weekend as he now knows he’ll be back racing in front of his fans next April, too.

But Tsunoda soon got to work delivering for the crowd this weekend, firstly addressing the main grandstand from the podium before FP3, and then advancing to Q3. The cheers and polite applause that greeted every lap Tsunoda completed were wholesome, but didn’t quite give away the passion with which he is supported here.

Yuki Tsunoda Japanese Grand Prix

Yuki Tsunoda felt the love at his home grand prix

Red Bull

The fans are incredible for all drivers, but it really hit home how popular Tsunoda is when the pit straight opened on Saturday night. Lucky ticket holders could do a pitlane walk and see cars up close, but when on the grid the biggest numbers were all gathered around P9. It was Yuki’s grid slot for the race, and hundreds wanted to get their photo with the piece of tarmac he’d be starting from the following day.

It still feels like Tsunoda isn’t taken seriously by Red Bull as a future option — Christian Horner saying: “I think Yuki has made a step forward this year from what I’ve seen and followed” and calling his season “pretty decent” while describing Liam Lawson’s few races as “outstanding” — but at least he has a chance to try and force his way into its thinking next year. Because a Japanese driver in a race-winning car at Suzuka in future would be something else…

Williams’ mishap

When Logan Sargeant crashed at the final corner at the start of Q1, the pain on the mechanics’ faces in the Williams pit garage was plain to see.

It was the fourth crash in four race weekends — not all Sargeant’s fault it must be said, but costly nonetheless — and left Williams with a big rebuilding job overnight. But parc fermé regulations limit what work can be done when the cars are covered, so Williams had to wait to properly build up its spare chassis until Sunday morning. The original had been damaged slightly in the crash, and teams are allowed to add certain components to a spare chassis in preparation. But Williams went too far and added parts that are not on the list before parc fermé was over.

It led to a lot of focus from teams up and down the paddock as many have faced similar challenges in the past — for Aston Martin it was only a week ago — and the precedent that was going to be set by any penalty intrigued them. In the end, Sargeant had to take a 10-second time penalty after starting the race from the pitlane.

Logan Sargeant

Williams paid dearly for another error from the young American rookie

Getty Images

It was intended to be a clear deterrent but the teams have requested it’s a topic that will be revisited in the next Sporting Advisory Committee in order go ensure time can be used better between qualifying and races.

Seb causes a buzz

As he was preparing for retirement a year ago, Sebastian Vettel said he would be open to returning in a one-off capacity to race at Suzuka if needed, such is his love of this stunning venue. And although he didn’t get the chance to get behind the wheel this weekend the four-time world champion was still present at the track.

Related article

When will Max Verstappen win the 2023 F1 championship?

When will Max Verstappen win the 2023 F1 championship?

Max Verstappen looks likely to win the 2023 F1 championship at the Qatar Grand Prix sprint race this weekend thanks to his 177-point lead. Here's when and where he's likely to secure the title — and who has a (slim) chance of challenging him

By Dominic Tobin

It was a personal project that brought him here, with Vettel building ten ‘insect hotels’ on the inside of Turn 2 and being allowed to paint the apex kerb yellow and black — branding it ‘Buzzin’ Corner’ — to raise awareness of declining biodiversity that can have an impact on the ecosystem.

It’s the sort of cause that Vettel had been showing impressive commitment to while he was still racing and has continued since, and the level of effort he put into the design and construction was remarkable. The details matter to Vettel, and he was spending late nights in a nearby workshop preparing the hotels with a local carpenter, as well as liaising with the track to be able to unveil it all on Thursday.

The whole grid of drivers turned out (eventually — the Haas pair were late) and the enthusiasm was impressive. Even in high temperatures and humidity, the drivers were willing to get involved painting, signing and learning about Vettel’s project.

Vettel F1 2023 Japanese Grand Prix

A star-studded field showed out for their former F1 colleague


It wasn’t without its stress, with Vettel’s PR manager Britta Rieske admitting she was exhausted by the start of the race weekend, but it was at that point that Vettel reverted to his first love — racing. He was regularly trackside during sessions to watch cars through Suzuka’s immense first sector, and you could sense he’d jump back in instantly this weekend, even if he insists he’s not considering a return.


Fantastic fanatics

It might almost seem cliche to point out how great the fans are in Japan, but I just couldn’t end the weekend without giving them a mention. The way they bring such enthusiasm and support to absolutely every driver on the grid is amazing, but what’s unique is the creativity.

Sure, there’s plenty of ‘normal’ merchandise on display and team kit sold, but there’s also so much in the way of homemade clothing and accessories that must take months to prepare. From the hard hats that carry full models of cars or DRS-activating rear wings, to what are best described as silk pyjamas that featured the face of every single driver (and was worn by a family of four), it’s an immense commitment.

Japanese Grand Prix family fans

Japanese Grand Prix fans wore the perfect outfits for a weekend of racing

Grand Prix Photo