Verstappen aims to bounce back at Suzuka as Ferrari speed up

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Max Verstappen will be aiming to bounce back from his rare retirement in Australia with a statement win in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix but Ferrari are confident they can take the fight to him at Suzuka.

Red Bull’s triple Formula One world champion has taken pole position on his last two visits to the figure-of-eight circuit owned by engine partner Honda, and both times by a considerable margin after a previous setback.

In 2022, when Suzuka returned after a two-year absence following the COVID-19 pandemic, Verstappen beat teammate Sergio Perez by 27 seconds in a rain-shortened race to secure his second drivers’ title.

He had finished only seventh in the previous race in Singapore, won by Perez.

Last year, Verstappen was fifth in a Singapore Grand Prix won by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, Red Bull’s sole defeat of the season and he then dominated at Suzuka, with fastest lap, to beat McLaren’s Lando Norris by 19 seconds.

This time he turns up after suffering his first retirement since 2022, ending a run of nine successive wins, with Sainz going on to win in Melbourne in a Ferrari one-two with Charles Leclerc.

Both of Verstappen’s Japanese wins came much later in the year, with Suzuka moving from a September/October title-deciding slot to peak tourist season, but Red Bull hope the story remains the same.

“Unfortunately, we had a retirement in Australia so we want to come here and show that we are quick again,” Verstappen said at a fan event in Tokyo.

“For the last two years, but especially last year, for me Suzuka was a great place, so hopefully we can do something similar.”

Suzuka’s fast and flowing lines, with the awesome 130R corner, make it a very different challenge to the three races so far in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Melbourne but the sinuous circuit could also play to Red Bull’s strengths.

The champions are also rumoured to be bringing a significant car upgrade, with attention focusing on aerodynamic modifications to the sidepods.

Ferrari have emerged as Red Bull’s closest rivals, with Leclerc now only four points adrift of Verstappen.

“Everybody is very, very tight and each weekend we will need to start from scratch and push again and again and again,” said Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur at the fan event.

“Last year we didn’t perform very well (in Suzuka) but I think we took a step forward in this kind of very high-speed corner. We are in a much better shape compared to one year ago.

“I’m convinced that Red Bull will be very strong in Japan, it will be difficult, but it’s open and I think it’s a good motivation the fact that we won last week.”

McLaren, Aston Martin and Mercedes can also expect to be in the mix although the latter team are in danger of dropping to fifth overall as they again struggle to unlock performance from their car.

Japanese fans will have two home drivers to cheer in first practice, with Ayumu Iwasa replacing Australian Daniel Ricciardo alongside Yuki Tsunoda at Red Bull-owned RB.

Haas’s Japanese team boss Ayao Komatsu will also be making his home debut since taking on the role in January, with the U.S.-owned team chasing a third successive finish in the points.

Williams will be back to full strength after racing in Australia with one car after Alex Albon crashed and was handed teammate Logan Sargeant’s. The team will still not have a spare, however.