Sainz threat to Red Bull was snuffed out after Norris's special lap in Japan


2024 Japanese Grand Prix analysis: F1 was back to a familiar Red Bull 1-2 in Suzuka, says Mark Hughes. But a different qualifying result could have brought Carlos Sainz into play

Lando Norris ahead of Carlos Sainz in 2024 F1 Japanese Grand Prix

Norris maintains grid advantage over Sainz, as the Red Bulls slip away at the start of the Japanese GP

Florent Gooden/DPPI

Around one of the most demanding tracks on the calendar – for tyres, car and driver in that order – the Japanese Grand Prix was strictly a race of performance hierarchy. There was a great variation in strategies and tyre choice but none of it made too much difference and the pack shuffled itself into its natural order.

Red Bull

Which meant of course Max Verstappen way out front, no mechanical hiccups or awkward tyre issues to cloud his weekend, just the world’s greatest race track on which to push to his car’s and his own limits. We were last here six months ago and actually the RB20 didn’t really find all that much time through the Esses and the rest of sector 1 over its predecessor, but was generally a little better everywhere else. “Yes, but in the Esses the tyres are generally saturated now,” said Adrian Newey. “So we’d reached that saturation point with last year’s car, I guess.”

Verstappen stuck it on pole, but only just. He was a scant few hundredths faster than team mate Sergio Perez. Again, this was a tyre limitation. They have only so much energy to give and once they go over their optimum temperature, even over a single lap, they aren’t coming back. Max reckoned he’d pushed a little too hard early in the lap and so had understeer in the last part, “which meant I couldn’t place the car on the kerbs in the way I wanted at the end.” That first kerb into the chicane needs to be whacked with the car at just the right angle for the reaction from the rear axle to the kerb to then complete the direction change. Otherwise tenths bleed away.

Max Verstappen on track at Suzuka in 2024 F1 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying

A flying start to his final run cost Verstappen at the end of the lap

Clive MAson/Getty via Red Bull

That’s how big the tyre degradation is around Suzuka’s long, fast, rough-surface corners. With the blue skies of Sunday came a significant increase in track temperature – and yet more difficulty for the tyres. Red Bull, like Ferrari, had saved two fresh sets of mediums and one set of hards for what is invariably a two-stop race. McLaren and Mercedes had saved two sets of hards and one medium.

Turned out the latter was probably the better choice. But the Red Bull and Ferrari were clearly the fastest and second-fastest car respectively, so the slightly disadvantageous tyre choice didn’t really matter.

Verstappen ran away and hid – on a standard two-stop strategy, able to run longer than the others while still pulling out plenty of distance over Perez. He finished 12sec ahead of his team-mate and 20sec ahead of Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari.

Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez celebrate 1-2 finish on the podium at 2024 F1 Japanese Grand Prix

Back to business as usual for red Bull in Suzuka

Peter Fox/Getty via Red Bull


Ferrari was outqualified by Lando Norris’s McLaren but that was a function of an exceptionally good Norris lap and the slow corner shortcomings of the McLaren being ameliorated by new soft tyres over a single lap. As a race car, it was comfortably out-paced by the Ferrari. But Norris initially had the track position advantage over Sainz that his qualifying performance had bought him.

So in a first stint with everyone on the same age tyres and with not enough pace difference for there to be any overtaking, Sainz was trapped behind the McLaren as the two Red Bulls escaped.

Charles Leclerc in Suzuka Esses during 2024 F1 Japanese GP qualifying

Qualifying mishaps left Leclerc ninth on the grid


Leclerc had a bad qualifying, needing to use two sets of softs in Q1 and therefore having only one run in Q3 and even then not getting the tyre prep lap right and starting only ninth. But this year’s Ferrari’s tyre deg is consistently good, no matter whether the challenge is graining (like in Melbourne) or thermal deg (like here). So Ferrari felt brave enough to try a one-stop for him. Without any undercut pressure from behind, he was able to run very long on his first set of mediums yet maintain a competitive pace. On his hards he was running third but around 1sec slower (because of his older tyres) than two-stopping team mate Sainz who was catching fast. Leclerc agreed to swap positions so Sainz could continue his chase of Perez and finished fourth.

Sainz was 8sec away from Perez at the end but had run faster than the Red Bull ever since getting onto his final set of hards. Had he not lost so much time behind Norris in the first stint, he could probably have applied some serious pressure for that second position.


The McLaren was super-quick through the fast turns but lost time at the hairpin and chicane, just like here six months ago. Norris used this combination to qualify third-quickest, around 0.3sec off the Red Bulls. Oscar Piastri wasn’t quite as on the pace as last time here (when he’d qualified on the front row) and was in P6, behind Fernando Alonso’s Aston, on the grid.

Fernando Alonso leads Oscar Piastri in 2024 F1 Japanese Grand Prix

Alonso kept Piastri close to fend off Russell

Clive Mason/Getty Images

Norris held position at the start and throughout the first stint but fell gradually further-adrift of Perez and just could not shake off Sainz. As the pitstop window opened Sainz was close enough to pose an obvious undercut threat – and McLaren brought him in early to cover that off. This just meant he’d be running on much slower tyres later on, as the degradation rate of even the hard tyres was around 0.1sec per lap. As Perez and Sainz ran for an extra four laps they came out behind him after the first stops but were much quicker, Perez passing on track almost immediately, Sainz doing so in the next stint.

Had Norris not been forced onto a less than ideal stint spacing by Sainz’s undercut pressure, he may well have been able to beat Leclerc’s one-stopping Ferrari. But Leclerc always had track position over him once Norris had made his second stop (on the same lap as Leclerc’s first). So fifth it was.

Piastri ran behind Alonso virtually throughout. As they were both caught by the newer-tyred Mercedes of George Russell, Alonso did the ‘Sainz in Singapore’ trick of allowing Piastri to get close enough to use the straightline speed of DRS to thwart Russell, thereby keeping the Merc off his back too. But just over a lap from the end Piastri had a wobble at the chicane, enough to allow the Mercedes to DRS its way past for seventh.

Aston Martin & Mercedes

The two Mercedes-powered cars were very evenly-matched. But Alonso made a better qualifying lap than either Lewis Hamilton (P7) or Russell (P9) and Aston made what turned out to be a better race strategy.

It wasn’t so much Alonso’s unusual choice of starting on the softs that made the difference so much as Merc’s decision, after a first lap red flag (for a Ricciardo/Albon accident), to take the restart on hards, with the intention of one-stopping. From seventh and ninth on the grid, there was a logic to trying something different. But it didn’t work, the Merc unable to keep its tyres happy in the way Leclerc’s one-stopping Ferrari could.

Yuki Tsunoda with fans at 2024 Japanese Grand Prix

Tsunoda claimed a point in front of home fans

Peter Fox/Getty via Red Bull

This was particularly the case for Hamilton who had taken some front wing damage against Leclerc on the opening lap of the restart and suffered understeer as a result, killing the front-right tyre. To such an extent that he let Russell by of his own volition, not believing he’d be able to stay on schedule for the one-stop otherwise. Turned out the one-stop wasn’t feasible anyway and they were converted to a two once they’d cleared a tight gaggle of six scrapping lower-half cars. On the mediums they were respectably quick, and with tyres five laps newer than Alonso’s they caught up to him quickly, before he used his Piastri shield against Russell.

Yuki Tsunoda’s RB was first across the line of the teams outside the top five, fending off Nico Hülkenberg’s Haas for the final point. It was a nice flourish for the fans – and a further claim to promotion within the Red Bull family.