Verstappen continues to set the pace in Japan FP2


Any lingering hopes that Red Bull might still be struggling this week were dashed by another strong showing from Max Verstappen, who was emphatically fastest again in second practice for the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

Charles Leclerc was second for Ferrari ahead of Lando Norris, with Carlos Sainz fourth for George Russell, whose Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton continued to stutter and was only P14.

The session had lacked any significant incidents until the final two minutes when Pierre Gasly locked up going through the second Degner and missed the corner, planting the Alpine into the barrier to bring out a red flag.

Earlier, all eyes had been on Verstappen to see if Red Bull's Singapore slump had been a one-off or something more serious. The Dutch driver had seemingly gone out of his way to prove that normal service had been restored for the world champions. Sainz had kept Ferrari as 'best of the rest' ahead of McLaren's Lando Norris, while local hero Yuki Tsunoda had delighted home fans in fifth with his AlphaTauri team mate Liam Lawson also in the top ten.

The spots of rain that had featured at the end of FP1 had come to nought and conditions were still humid, overcast but dry when the lights at the end of pit lane went green to get the second session underway at Suzuka International Racing Course. Most drivers were keen to get going as quickly as possible, a majority on Pirelli's test compound, with Alpine's Pierre Gasly signing on with a cheery 'konnichiwa' over the team radio recalling his days racing here in Japanese Super Formula.

Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB19. 22.09.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan, Practice Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas set an early time of 1:33.163s to go nearly three tenths ahead of Sergio Perez. Max Verstappen was last to complete an initial flying lap but clearly had a point to prove, and was soon on top with 1:31.377s having opted to come straight out on the soft compound. Despite being on the medium, Norris was able to get within a second of the Bull while there were good laps from Alexander Albon and Oscar Piastri, until Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz jumped ahead of them albeit still some way off Verstappen's maiden time.

Traffic continued to be an issue, with Kevin Magnussen giving an ironic thumbs up to a dawdling Sainz though the first two corners. He was subsequently also frustrated by Lawson, although in that case the AlphaTauri had no where to go. Zhou Guanyu later rode the kerbs at Degner 2 while his team mate Bottas locked up and flat-spotted his tyres running straight on over the grass, but the Finn was on the test compound so it was little loss. Albon was more worried about potential floor damage to the Williams after skating over the kerb at turn 9, but the Williams engineers gave him the once over and pronounced the all-clear.

George Russell showed there were signs of life at Mercedes, splitting the Ferraris by going third on his first serious run of the day on the soft compound although still 0.677s behind Verstappen, with Lewis Hamilton two tenths further back in P6. It was left to Norris to depose Verstappen from the top spot with a time of 1:31.152s having switched to the softs. Albon returned to the fray and went third, with further good qualifying laps from Bottas, Magnussen, Nico Hulkenberg and Zhou Guanyu putting all four into the top ten for now.

Leclerc took over P1 with a time of 1:31.008s with Sainz going third having been fitted out with the new Ferrari floor that had been trialled by the Monegasque in FP1. Fernando Alonso then went fifth in the Aston Martin until displaced by an improved run from Russell, but then Verstappen was back on track redefining the top times with a lap of 1:30.688s.

With 20 minutes remaining the cars began coming back to pit lane to take on sets of medium tyres for longer race distance runs, Norris having demonstrated how quickly the soft tyres dropped away. There was little opportunity for anyone to improve their earlier times and Verstappen duly finished in P1 ahead of Leclerc, Norris and Sainz. The Red Bull was also significantly quicker than its rivals in long run pace.

The session ended slightly prematurely when Gasly locked up and the Alpine went nose-first into the barrier while following his team mate Esteban Ocon through Degner. The yellow flags soon became red, and with only two minutes left on the clock there was no time for a resumption.

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