Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez leave the field mystified at qualifying for F1 Japanese GP

As the minutes ticked down in the third portion of qualifying Saturday at the Japanese Grand Prix, a question from Lewis Hamilton perhaps told the story. Informed by his team that his lap time was half a second slower than the time posted by Max Verstappen, the seven-time Drivers’ Champion lamented simply:

“Where’s that half second, man?”

Hamilton was not the only driver left mystified by what the Red Bulls were doing. A number of his rivals, such as Fernando Alonso and Charles Leclerc, were left wondering what else they could do to catch the team at the front. Verstappen captured pole position for the third-straight year at Suzuka, and teammate Sergio Pérez, under pressure to deliver after Lando Norris put his MCL38 on the front row early in Q3 alongside Verstappen, turned in an absolute banger of a lap in the closing seconds, to lockout the front row for Red Bull.

After Carlos Sainz Jr.’s spectacular return to the grid in Australia, which saw the Ferrari driver best the field for his first win of the season, many wondered if the field was perhaps catching Red Bull, and if the door was open — even if just a crack — for a challenger to truly put the Bulls under pressure.

Saturday at Suzuka under the cherry blossoms Verstappen, Pérez, and Red Bull seemed to slam that door shut.

For three-plus seasons the team, and Verstappen in particular, have left their challengers mystified.

This weekend is shaping up to be more of the same.

“If I rely on the feeling, it’s pretty good,” described Leclerc following qualifying before adding:

“If I look at the lap times, it’s a disaster.”

Here are the full qualifying results from the Japanese Grand Prix, as well as some more winners and losers from Saturday.

Winners: McLaren

At first blush, seeing Lando Norris in P3 and Oscar Piastri in P6 might not scream “winners.”

But something Norris said in the post-qualifying press conference should give the rest of the pack chasing Red Bull something to think about.

“I think if we kind of look back to where we were last year we were even further away, I think five tenths off of pole. And this is the first track we’ve come back to, which is where we had our upgrades last season,” explained Norris. “So I think it’s our best comparison of how we’ve improved over the winter and we’re quite a bit closer. So I think that’s a very good sign.”

His point about where McLaren stands relative to last year is certainly worth noting. The team got off to a much better start this season than they did a year ago, scoring double-points finishes in all three races to date. But as Norris illustrates, Suzuka is the first circuit on this year’s calendar that offered a truer comparison of where their challenger currently stands. The first three races of this season this year — Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Australia — are all circuits that came before the team’s massive upgrades to their 2023 challenger during last season.

The team had the upgrades for last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, so for the team to be improved this weekend over where they were in Suzuka is a very good sign for McLaren.

And perhaps a worrying sign for the rest of the chasing pack.

Loser: Lance Stroll

When the 2024 F1 calendar was released, moving the Japanese Grand Prix up to April, many fans were excited about the potential of running one of the sport’s beloved races in the spring. Not only did the calendar change move the race out of Japan’s typhoon season, but it also brought the Japanese Grand Prix in line with cherry blossom season, which has offered some beautiful images from Suzuka this season.

One driver, perhaps, had a different view.

Lance Stroll.

Suzuka has not been particularly kind to Stroll over his F1 career, with his best ever result coming back in 2019 when he finished ninth. Outside of that result, Suzuka has been a house of horrors for Stroll, with four other finishes outside of the points and a pair of retirements, including last season.

In fact, Stroll has seen Q2 just twice in his career, back in the 2018 and 2019 installments of the Japanese Grand Prix.

He would not see Q2 on this day.

Stroll was one of the five eliminated drivers at the end of Q1, along with Kevin Magnussen, Pierre Gasly, Logan Sargeant, and Zhou Guanyu. Making matters worse for Stroll is what his teammate did in Q1, as Fernando Alonso put his AMR24 up in P2, splitting the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez.

Aston Martin brought some upgrades to Suzuka this weekend, including changes to the floor as well as a new diffuser. But so far, it is Alonso who has made the most of them.

Winner: Yuki Tsunoda

You could hear the roar at the end of Q2, a roar that told a complete story.

In the closing seconds of Saturday’s second qualifying session, Daniel Ricciardo delivered a lap that he desperately needed, putting his RB01 into P10 and himself into Q3 for a moment. But right behind him was his Visa Cash App RB F1 Team teammate, Yuki Tsunoda. The hometown hero — who had out-qualified Ricciardo in each of the three races already this season — was on a thunderous lap, putting Ricciardo’s position in Q3 at risk.

When Tsunoda crossed the line, the thunderous sound came not just from the turbocharged engine underneath him, but from the fans willing him into Q3.

Tsunoda’s lap was good enough for tenth, booking the hometown hero a spot in Q3, and dropping Ricciardo out yet again. “Yeah good lap! Well done guys,” exclaimed Tsunoda over the radio to his team following his lap.

This marks the second year in a row that Tsunoda has advanced to Q3 in his home race.

Loser: Zhou Guanyu

The last time Zhou Guanyu advanced out of Q1, the Philadelphia Eagles were 6-1 and considered one of the best teams in the NFC, if not the NFL at large.

That was back in October of 2023, when the grid was down in Mexico for the Mexico City Grand Prix. On that qualifying Saturday Zhou put his C43 up into Q3, and qualified tenth, just behind teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Since then, the Eagles turned in a dismal performance down the stretch, collapsing out of the division lead and eventually out of the playoffs. Over that same period of time, it is now been seven-straight Q1 exits for Zhou.

Similar to Stroll, the comparison between teammates is glaring. While Zhou was knocked out in Q1, Bottas was safely into Q2. With both driving on expiring contracts this season, the pressure is on both to extend their F1 careers ahead of Sauber becoming the Audi works team in 2026.

“Today was always going to be difficult,” lamented Zhou following Q1 to Lawrence Barretto on F1TV. Whether Zhou can show better pace — and better pit stops — on Sunday remains to be seen.

Winner: Fernando Alonso

Midway through Q3, Fernando Alonso may have been lamenting his standing on the timing sheets. Informed that he was in P7, a few tenths off P4, Alonso asked no one in particular “[y]eah I don’t know what to do to go faster mate. I thought that was a good lap.”

He made up a bit of time on his final effort, coming across the line in P5, giving himself a very good chance at some big points on Sunday.

“I am very happy with fifth position today. It’s always a very special experience Qualifying in Suzuka, with the low fuel loads and fresh tyres and everything felt good in the car today. Perhaps it’s a little unexpected to be as competitive as we were. Looking back at last year, we were over one second from pole position in Suzuka and now we are only four tenths away, so it seems we are going in the right direction,” said Alonso in the team’s post-qualifying debrief. “It’s too soon to say whether our updates have made a significant difference, but we’ll look at all the data we have. We have usually been faster in Qualifying compared to the Race, so let’s see what happens on Sunday.”

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