Max Verstappen laid down a marker with the fastest time in the second practice for the Japanese Grand Prix on Friday, as the session was ended early after a Pierre Gasly crashed his Alpine.
Red Bull’s Verstappen, who leads teammate and nearest rival Sergio Perez by 151 points in the championship standings, was last out on the Suzuka track in dry conditions.
He put down a fastest lap of 1min 30.688sec to finish 0.320sec quicker than second-placed Charles Leclerc of Ferrari.
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Verstappen cannot clinch the title on Sunday but a favourable result can set him up to seal the deal at the Qatar Grand Prix next month.
The Dutchman is looking to bounce back from a disappointing fifth-place finish in Singapore that ended his record streak of 10 straight wins.
He made his intentions clear from the start of the day, finishing the first practice quickest ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and McLaren’s Lando Norris.
And there was no let-up in the second session. He briefly ceded top spot to Leclerc before switching to fresh tyres and reclaiming first place.
“My goodness, Max looks like he’s in his element around here,” Sky Sports F1’s Anthony Davidson said.
Norris had the third-fastest time with 1min 31.152sec, while Oscar Piastri was eighth on 1:31.662.
Alpine’s Pierre Gasly crashed with just minutes of the session remaining.
Gasly was unhurt but his front wing was badly damaged after catching the barriers.
“Locked up, sorry about that,” he said over the team radio.
Sainz, who won last week in Singapore, finished fourth followed by Mercedes’s George Russell and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.
Perez was ninth, more than a second behind Verstappen.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton was 14th in a tough outing for Mercedes.
Haas’s Kevin Magnussen had a near miss with Sainz at turn two, giving the Spanish driver a sarcastic thumbs-up in response.
Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu suffered a hydraulic leak late in the session. Lance Stroll was back in action after missing the Singapore race, following a huge crash in qualifying that destroyed his Aston Martin.
Earlier, in the first practice session on Friday afternoon, Piastri finished a strong seventh-fastest as Verstappen made a massive statement, lapping in 1:31.647 seconds to open up a whopping gap of 0.626 seconds on the rest of the field.
It was a significant return to form for Red Bull, who in Singapore failed to win a race for the first time this season. But teammate Sergio Perez was just 11th in the second Red Bull car, almost 1.4 seconds off the Dutchman’s fastest time.
Carlos Sainz was second for Ferrari, while Lando Norris was third for McLaren – but promisingly for Piastri, he was just three-tenths of a second behind his teammate’s time.
Charles Leclerc was fourth in the second Ferrari, ahead of Yuki Tsunoda of AlphaTauri and Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin.
Piastri signs extension with McLaren | 00:53
Speaking after the session, McLaren CEO Zak Brown crowed about the young gun’s performance in his first session at Suzuka.
“We got the upgrades on Oscar’s car last night, so it’s good to see him get up to speed very quickly,” he said.
He added: “We tried the new tyres but I think we’ll be competitive this weekend… I think it’ll be a fun race.”
Asked how he prepared his rookie driver for the tricky circuit, Brown said: “A lot of simulation, a lot of simulator time… it took him about five laps (to adjust to the new track).
“This is a tricky track. For him to get up to speed so quickly is pretty impressive. I think the simulator had something to do with it but so is his talent.”
Speaking about Piastri’s development this season – in line with the significant development of the car through the year – Brown said: “I think there’s a lot more to come, which is the exciting part. His maturity is what has been most impressive and his technical feedback and understanding.
“I think no one is surprised at the pace but he’s so mature, he’s very calm. He kind of takes one session at a time and come show-time he’s right there.
“You can see his confidence is growing because his Fridays now are becoming more competitive than the start of the year.
“Our driver line-up – of all the things that need to be competitive, I’m not worried about the driver line-up.”
PIT TALK PODCAST: Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz is the first non-Red Bull Racing driver to win a race in 2023 after a defusing a Mercedes chase in a Singapore GP classic.
F1 Japan coverage start times (Fox Sports 506 and Kayo)
PRACTICE 1 Midday AEST (session starts 12.30pm)
PRACTICE 2 3.45pm AEST (starts 4pm)
PRACTICE 3 12.45pm AEST (starts 12.30pm)
QUALIFYING 3pm AEST (starts 4pm)
RACE 1.30PM AEDT (starts 3pm)
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