Will Newey attempt a 'zero sidepod' Red Bull? What to watch for at the 2024 Japanese GP


Red Bull is tipped to bring a major upgrade to Suzuka: can it shake off Ferrari? With rain forecast, which could shake up the running order, here's what to watch for at the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix

Australian Grand Prix 2024 British Grand Prix 2022 Mercedes Red Bull

Could Red Bull bear a resemblance to Mercedes' W13 from 2022?

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F1 will visit Suzuka in the height of cherry blossom season this weekend, as the Japanese Grand Prix takes up an earlier slot than usual on the 2024 calendar.

Usually held towards the end of the year, the race has been bumped up to April for the first time in its history, but will that stop Red Bull from replicating its triumphs of the past?

Suzuka has been one of Max Verstappen‘s strongest circuits in recent years, having won by landslide margins in 2022 and 2023, while also claiming his second drivers’ title and helping Red Bull secure its sixth constructors’ crown in respective years.

The team could seemingly march to a similar tune in 2024 in the hope of recovering from a rare weekend to forget in Melbourne, where Verstappen failed to reach the chequered flag for the first time in over 700 days. A major upgrade package for the RB20 in Japan is rumoured to feature a zero sidepod design, which could re-establish the Dutchman’s advantage over Ferrari and McLaren — both of which will be keen to strike for victory while Red Bull appear vulnerable.

But with a spell of wet weather forecast on race day, the eventual winner may well have through a spell of Suzuka-based chaos, not to mention the cooler conditions spring, compared to more familiar October temperatures, which could favour Mercedes.

Here’s what to watch for at the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix.


Red Bull’s new ‘Mercedes-like’ design 

Red Bull Max Verstappen at the 2024 Australian Grand Prix

Could Red Bull make Mercedes’ zero sidepod design work?

Red Bull

Max Verstappen was mysteriously coy when he was asked about the new design of the RB20, which is set to incorporate major upgrades at this weekend’s Japanese GP.

“Well, I mean the colour will be the same,” he said, before adding: “You will see.”

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MPH: Why Suzuka will be moment of truth for Ferrari and Mercedes

MPH: Why Suzuka will be moment of truth for Ferrari and Mercedes

Ferrari said it would have challenged for victory in Melbourne even if Max Verstappen hadn't retired; Mercedes has identified its weak spot. Mark Hughes says that Suzuka will reveal if either team can hope to challenge Red Bull throughout 2024

By Mark Hughes

The Milton Keynes outfit had teased the potential of a major early-season upgrade almost immediately after its 2024 car launch, with rumour circulating that its designer Adrian Newey would attempt to make Mercedes’ disastrous zero sidepod concept — last used on the 2022 W13 — work for the reigning champions.

It would certainly be a surprise move, given that the majority of the grid have decided to move toward an RB19-inspired design after its overwhelming success last year. But in an attempt to retain its sizeable on-track advantage, Red Bull could to set a new design trend.

Whatever the car actually looks like, Verstappen will be hoping that it re-establishes a sizeable lead, after Ferrari looked to have the pace to challenge him in Australia. We have already seen what that looks like at Suzuka. In 2022, and in pouring rain, he finished almost 30 seconds ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez in second. In 2023, he was over six-tenths clear of the field in qualifying and subsequently led from lights out to the chequered flag in similarly dominant fashion.

But not all upgrades perform as expected. Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren won’t need asking twice to enter into the title fight.


Lower temperatures, fewer stops? 

Max Verstappen Red Bull 2023 Japanese Grand prix

A two-stop strategy is the norm in Japan, but could cooler weather shake things up?

Red Bull

Japan’s earlier slot on the 2024 calendar means that F1 will go racing in lower temperatures, ranging between 8C and 13C — around 4C lower than the more familiar October fixture.

According to Pirelli, this could have a drastic effect on race strategy, as drivers who are gentle on their tyres might be able to limit thermal degradation enough to make just one stop instead of the traditional two.

“On the other hand,” added Pirelli. “This might make it harder to keep the tyres in the correct operating window, particularly when bringing them up to temperature on an out-lap from the pits.

“A one-stopper also decreases the effectiveness of the undercut, which is usually very useful at Suzuka, even with the hard and medium compounds being the preferred race compounds.”

Add into the mix the possibility of some brief rain — which is forecast to hit the circuit on Sunday — and this weekend’s Japanese GP could be among the most unpredictable in recent memory, forcing race strategists and drivers to be as vigilant as ever.


The moment of truth for Ferrari

Overhead view of Carlos Sainz in 2024 f1 Australian GP

Ferrari’s “huge step” on tyre wear was evident in Australia


The return of Max Verstappen to front-running form is expected at this weekend’s Japanese GP, and as Mark Hughes writes, the response from Ferrari could make or break its 2024 campaign.

When the Dutchman retired after just a handful of laps in Melbourne, Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were left in firm control, with plenty of power to beat the trailing McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri. But what has kept Ferrari behind Red Bull in the past has not been a power deficiency but its terrible tyre degradation.

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Suzuka is historically tough on tyres — especially on the rears which have a tendency to overheat through the Esses and leave drivers’ struggling for grip throughout the rest of the lap. But Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur is confident the Maranello outfit has taken “major steps” in improving the SF-24’s tyre degradation. In Melbourne, both cars even looked marginally better than Sergio Perez’s lone Red Bull.

“I’m not sure we can say the tyre management was the main focus of the development of this car,” said Vasseur. “What is true is that last year the main issue was the fact that the car was very difficult to drive and then into the race if you have to do a step you are doing mistakes, damaging the tyres, and then it’s kind of a negative spiral.

“This year it’s much easier to read, to know where is the limit and to stay just a bit below. And when you have to do tyre management it’s much, much easier and they are much more under control than they were last year when they were a bit more in survival mode. Doing this, you are killing the tyres quite quickly.”

Should their upward tyre trajectory continue to improve this weekend, both Sainz and Leclerc could be in a position to take the fight to Verstappen for the remainder of the 2024 campaign.


A Mercedes resurgence? 

Mercedes F1 car of George Russell runs into the gravel at 2024 Australian Grand Prix

Mercedes has struggled to keep pace so far in 2024

Paul Crock/AFP via Getty Images

Mercedes will enter Japan with the aim of recovering from a disastrous weekend in Melbourne. After Lewis Hamilton retired with an engine fault — contributing to his worst start to an F1 season since 2009 — George Russell crashed on the final lap while in pursuit of Fernando Alonso‘s Aston Martin. But despite the underperformance and mishaps, a return to competitiveness could be within reach.

Differentiating conditions have been the main thorn in the Brackley outfit’s side according to its technical director James Allison, after he was asked why Mercedes’ performance has been positive during FP3 but subsequently bad in competitive sessions.

“We have a period in the weekend where we’re feeling good about the car but then in the paying sessions in qualifying and race it slips through our fingers,” he said. “The strongest correlation we can make at the moment is that when the day is warm and therefore the tyre temperature is coming up with the track temperature, that’s when the competitiveness drops.

“The times we’ve been good have all been in the sessions which are the coolest. That gives us some clues about what we need to do moving forwards.”

With cooler temperatures forecast all weekend in Japan, Mercedes’ W15 should be able to sustain its practice pace throughout the weekend to challenge for the podium places. Or the team has a bigger problem than it has realised.


McLaren lose major technical signing

Ahead of the Japanese GP, David Sanchez has left McLaren after just three months as part of a technical restructuring.

Formerly a chief aerodynamicist at Ferrari, the Frenchman joined McLaren in January as its new technical director, but stated that “the role we envisioned and had agreed was not aligned with the reality of the position I found.”

Team principal Andrea Stella added: “Recognising this misalignment, both David and I agreed that it would be best to part ways now, so to enable him to pursue other opportunities that will better leverage the full scale and breadth of his remarkable skillset.”

Sanchez had been one of McLaren’s biggest technical signings of the past year, and was tipped to become a key figure in the team’s ambitions to return to the front of the grid. Instead, McLaren has began the year slowly, taking a step back from the regular podium contention which Norris and Piastri enjoyed in the latter stages of 2023 to now competing for points finishes.

It’s unclear as to what effect this will have on the team’s development moving forward, but as part of the restructuring, Rob Marshall has become the team’s chief designer, Neil Houldey its technical director (engineering) and Stella its technical director of performance until a permanent replacement is found.