Weather conditions in Japan around Suzuka Circuit dried out just in time for the final practice and qualifying sessions today, which was a welcome change from the run of wet track conditions following the Formula 1 season recently.
Before qualifying kicked off, the worst-kept secrets in the paddock finally became public record as it was announced that Pierre Gasly was leaving AlphaTauri, and the larger Red Bull Racing family, to join Alpine alongside Esteban Ocon.
Gasly’s exit created a vacancy at AlphaTauri that was immediately filled by Nick de Vries, who shook up the Formula 1 world when he filled in for Williams’ Alex Albon on essentially zero notice and scored championship points in convincing fashion.
The driver shakeup concludes an embarrassing run of events for Alpine, which saw it lose two-time world champion Fernando Alonso to Aston Martin and up-and-coming wunderkind Oscar Piastri to Mclaren in a span of days.
Gasly was seen as the best available option for the French-owned racing team after losing both Alonso and Piastri, and gives the team its first all-French driver lineup with Gasly and Ocon in decades.,
As the first qualifying session (Q1) began, all eyes were on Japanese-born driver Yuki Tsunoda, but he and his AlphaTauri teammate Gasly complained of issues with the brakes early. Both drivers suffered major lockups, cooking their tires and causing significant loss of lap time.
AlphaTauri brought both drivers in to change tires and make adjustments in a scramble to get in lap times that would advance them into the next qualifying session. Tsunoda escaped elimination in Q1, but Gasly was not so fortunate, complaining loudly on his team radio that the team had taken Tsunoda’s issues more seriously and not done enough for him.
In addition to Gasly, Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi of Williams, and Lance Stroll of Aston Martin were also eliminated in Q1.
The second round of qualifying (Q2) was quiet until late runs by the field sent drivers tumbling down the order towards elimination while others put in their best laps, leap-frogging into safety.
Attention turned to Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time world champion who had never qualified outside the top ten at Suzuka Circuit. With Vettel’s retirement at the end of the year, this would be his last weekend at his favorite track, and it was apparent that he was determined to advance to the final session of the day.
Pushing his midfield car hard, Vettel burst out of the danger zone of elimination, putting in the sixth-fastest lap time of the session. However, as more cars followed him, he found his time bested over and over again. Vettel dropped all the way to tenth — the last position to advance — and waited anxiously as the final drivers completed their laps.
Vettel would ultimately hold on, beating Mclaren’s Daniel Ricciardo by three-thousandths of a second, 1:30.656 to 1:30.659, to advance. Ricciardo was joined by both Alfa Romeo drivers, Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu, as well as Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher of Haas, in the group not moving forward to the final round.
In the third session (Q3), the pace was blistering. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc set the early benchmark for provisional pole, followed by his teammate Carlos Sainz and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez. But it would be reigning world champion Max Verstappen who would best the field, taking down pole position for tomorrow’s race by one-hundredths of a second over Leclerc.
After the eventual pole-setting lap, there was a racing incident on the track between Verstappen and Mclaren’s Lando Norris. Verstappen was setting up to begin another flying lap, slowly creeping along the track, as Norris approached quickly.
Verstappen accelerated and lost control of the rear of his car, causing it to jolt to the left and into the path of a speedy Norris. However, the Mclaren driver reacted quickly and went off track to avoid any contact.
While the race stewards investigated the incident and reprimanded Verstappen, they chose not to impose any penalties, which meant that Verstappen retained pole position and starts tomorrow’s race from the top position.