A “fired up” Max Verstappen sent a warning to the rest of the grid that Red Bull are back on form as he set a searing pace to top the first two practice sessions at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Verstappen’s record 10-race winning run and Red Bull’s unbeaten season came to a shuddering halt last weekend in Singapore, where the team admitted they did not understand their struggles with the car’s set-up around the street circuit.
The 25-year-old was confident of a return to form around the high-speed corner track at Suzuka, where Lewis Hamilton predicted the Red Bull would be “phenomenal”, but all eyes were on the Dutchman who is closing in on a hat-trick of world titles.
His response to the struggles of Singapore was immediate and emphatic, finishing 0.626 seconds clear of Ferrari’s Singapore-winner Carlos Sainz in P1 before beating Charles Leclerc by 0.320sec in P2.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said: “He dealt with (Singapore) very maturely.
“It was a difficult weekend but he raced very hard. It was what it was. He knew at some point we were going to get beaten and he dealt with the situation well.
“He has certainly come here pretty fired up as you could see from his outlap in P1 today.
“Max knew it was always going to come to an end at some point. That 10th victory meant a lot to him and certainly to the team so I’m glad Singapore wasn’t the 10th in that succession of races. I think he has just shown great leadership and great maturity.”
The second session was red-flagged with a little over two minutes remaining when Pierre Gasly crashed heavily into the barriers at Degner Two, bringing a premature end to the session.
McLaren had been tipped to be the closest challengers to Red Bull and Verstappen this weekend, with Mercedes’ George Russell even suggesting the British team could be favourites.
Lando Norris showed strong pace to finish the day third, albeit 0.464sec off the pace, while Oscar Piastri, who signed a contract extension earlier this week, claimed eighth in the second McLaren.
Red Bull will almost certainly clinch the Constructors’ Championship this weekend at the home race for their engine supplier Honda.
But Sergio Perez was over a second off the pace of his team-mate, finishing 11th in P1 and ninth in P2.
Fernando Alonso claimed sixth for Aston Martin ahead of the Williams of Alex Albon.
Mercedes pair Russell and Hamilton struggled in the opening session, finishing a lowly 13th and 16th respectively, with chief race engineer Andrew Shovlin admitting the team had work to do on the car setup.
Russell claimed fifth in P2 but Hamilton was only 14th, with the seven-time world champion a huge 1.141sec off the pace.
“It was a very challenging day for us out there. I had a lack of confidence in the car and that contributed to our struggles,” Hamilton said.
“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do tonight to pick up the performance. I do believe we can make improvements though. We have had similar Friday’s this season and come back stronger on Saturday.”