Max Verstappen took pole for the Japanese Grand Prix with a superb lap of Suzuka. The Red Bull driver beat the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc into second with his Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz in third. Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were in sixth and eighth for Mercedes, with Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez in fourth and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon in fifth.
Ferrari and Red Bull had looked evenly matched over the weekend and it was Leclerc who was quickest on the first hot runs in Q3 only for Verstappen to put in an immense final sector and lead the timesheets by a full two-tenths.
On their final laps, Leclerc went quicker in the middle sector but dropped time on the final third and failed to match Verstappen’s time by just one-hundredth of a second. The Dutchman pushed hard on his final lap but lost a piece of bodywork from the rear of his car and could not improve, yet he had already done enough with his mighty first run.
However, Verstappen’s pole had hung in the balance for an hour and a half after qualifying. He was under investigation by the stewards for an incident with Lando Norris. The Dutchman had swerved across the track on his out-lap on the short straight before the chicane during his first run in Q3. Norris, however, was approaching from behind, exiting the enormously quick 130-R corner at pace. As Verstappen veered leftward, the British driver had to dive across the grass to avoid hitting him in what would have been a huge accident.
Afterwards Verstappen appeared to gesture his apologies from his car to Norris and was upset his team had not warned him the McLaren was so close on track. However, when qualifying was over he was insistent Norris had been in the wrong.
“We were all lining up to create a gap to everyone and then somehow he still wanted to get me into the chicane,” he said. “But I was on the point of accelerating and I was on very cold tyres, so I had a little moment and that’s why he had to drive around me.
“If he had just a bit more respect for me, because everyone is anyway lining up and I don’t think anyone is trying to pass into that last chicane, so by trying to pass me you create that kind of thing.”
Norris was equally dismissive of Verstappen’s actions and accused him of deliberately trying to impede him. When asked if Verstappen had tried to block him he was unequivocal. “It was quite clear he tried to do that, yeah,” he said. “There’s no rule on what you can do, but doing what he did is something that you cannot do. People always overtake before the last corner. He probably would have done the same if he was in my situation, but I wouldn’t have swerved at him if I was in his situation.”
Christian Horner backed Verstappen in believing Norris had broken an unwritten rule regarding the approach to the chicane. “They both were on out-laps and there is a gentlemen’s agreement between the drivers that when you get to that part of the circuit that you hold position and you file through the last corner one by one,” the Red Bull team principal said. “Lando decided that he wants to jump the queue as they head up to that final chicane. They are all doing different things on the out lap and I can only assume that Lando wanted to blitz it into 130-R and the chicane.”
The stewards spoke to both drivers and then delivered their verdict, concluding: “Unfortunately, due to lack of tyre temperature on car 1, the driver temporarily lost control of the car causing it to ‘snap’ anti-clockwise.” They issued Verstappen with a reprimand for failing to maintain control and he retained his pole position.
Verstappen is in an enormously strong position to wrap up the championship in Japan. He leads Leclerc by 104 points and Pérez by 106. He will seal his second title if if he wins here and Leclerc finishes below second. If he wins and takes the fastest lap, the championship will be his regardless.
If he does so here he will be only the fourth driver to have secured the championship with four or more races remaining. Michael Schumacher took it in 2002 with six to go, Nigel Mansell in 1992 with five, while Sebastian Vettel won with four remaining also at the Japanese GP in 2011. It would be an appropriate achievement after what has been an absolutely dominant season for the Dutchman.
This is his 18th pole position and his first at Suzuka is his sixth this year and Red Bull’s first in Japan since Mark Webber took the top spot here in 2013. Verstappen has yet to secure a win here but the pole comes on the back of a series of strong victories, including from 14th on the grid at Spa and seventh at Monza. He made a costly mistake at the last round in Singapore but the nature of the track here should be very much in Red Bull’s favour and he will expect to exploit it in race pace.
This fast, flowing, hugely challenging track is adored by the drivers and rewards those who can find the absolute limit on the precision lines required to maximise a lap, which Verstappen did with apparent effortlessness.
Before qualifying the Alpine team announced they had signed Pierre Gasly from AlphaTauri for 2023 to replace Fernando Alonso, who will be joining Aston Martin. Gasly will race alongside Esteban Ocon, making the first all-French lineup at the Renault-owned team since Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux in 1982.
Nyck de Vries will join AlphaTauri to replace Gasly. The 27-year-old Dutchman is currently the Mercedes reserve driver and won the Formula E championship in 2021. Alonso was seventh for Alpine, Sebastian Vettel ninth for Aston Martin and Norris 10th for McLaren.
Daniel Ricciardo was 11th for McLaren and Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou were in 12th and 14th for Alfa Romeo. Yuki Tsunoda was 13th for AlphaTauri and Mick Schumacher15th for Haas.
Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi were 16th and 20th for Williams. Gasly was 17th for AlphaTauri, Kevin Magnussen 18th for Haas and Lance Stroll 19th for Aston Martin.