Japanese GP 2023
SEPTEMBER 23, 2023
Practice 3 Report - Verstappen continues to lead
By Luis Vasconcelos
Max Verstappen continued to lead the field in his Red Bull-Honda remained unbeaten in practice for the Japanese Grand Prix, leading FP3 from the two McLaren drivers.
On a session where eight teams ran with Soft tyres only, qualifying preparation was the name of the game, but it was also very clear Suzuka has become a track much harder on the tyres than in previous years, with everyone's race plans moving from a one-stop strategy to a two-stops strategy.
For Verstappen there have been no issues, the Dutchman completing only 12 laps, on two sets of Soft tyres, leading the session from start to finish, but team mate Sérgio Pérez continues to struggle and was more than 0.7s behind his team mate putting the Mexican in fourth at the end of the session.
McLaren was remarkably quick during this session, and with Oscar Piastri now familiarized with the Suzuka circuit the two papaya orange cars were less than 0.3s behind Verstappen and comfortably ahead of the rest of the field. The MCL60 was very impressive in the first sector, Norris going even faster than Verstappen in the high-speed esses of the track, but was lacking the straight-line speed on the final sector, dropping 0.24s behind the World Champion. Piastri was extremely impressive, as he was now completely up to speed on a track that is quite difficult for the rookies and being just 0.048s slower than he's team mate he looks firmly in contention for a position on the front row of the grid.
Ferrari was the only team that had both drivers out on a long run on Soft tyres early in the session, but degradation was high and after seven laps both Sainz and Leclerc were back in the pits having just experienced big moments in the Denger corners, the Spaniard kissing the gravel on the exit of the first leg of that section, his team mate getting massively sideways on the exit of the final part of that corner. While the SF-23 improved its efficiency on the two final sectors, it was now less competitive in the first sector, so it's possible the Scuderia will make further changes in the set-up of the two cars before qualifying.
Mercedes made a step forward, especially on Hamilton's car, as the British driver was seventh quickest, on a lap time almost identical to Sainz's. But the W14 remains no match for Red Bull and McLaren in the first sector, losing more than half a second in just seven corners, so Hamilton and Russell are unlikely to feature in the battle for the first two rows of the grid. Russell's session was curtailed with ten minutes to go, due to damage on the right rear wheel shield that needed repairing, so he didn't complete his program, ending the morning with just nine laps to his name.
Fernando Alonso and Zhou Guanuy completed the top ten, the Spaniard unable to put a fully clean lap together as his Aston Martin-Mercedes looking quite difficult to drive, while the Chinese driver beat team mate Valtteri Bottas by just 0.031s, the Alfa Romeo-Ferrari seeming more competitive than on Friday and a serious contender to make it into Q3, especially with Alpine struggling more than expected around this track and Lance Stroll lapping 0.6s slower than his team mate.