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Max Verstappen in a class of his own but dire Sergio Perez is...
Team-mates Max Verstappen (left) and Sergio Perez have had very different seasons (Picture: Getty)
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner described Max Verstappen’s qualifying lap on Saturday at Suzuka as ‘probably the best lap that’s ever been achieved in one of our cars’.
It was almost six-tenths faster than fellow front-row starter Oscar Piastri, and is the biggest gap between P1 and P2 in Japan since Rubens Barrichello went seven-tenths quicker than Juan Pablo Montoya 20 years ago.
The Dutchman went on to win the Japanese Grand Prix from Piastri’s McLaren team-mate Lando Norris by more than 19 seconds. Were it not for a safety car, he’d have exceeded the goal he had set himself, determined to destroy the competition by 20 seconds after a disappointing Singapore GP.
‘He was properly fired up,’ revealed Horner. ‘He said, “I want to win the race by 20 seconds”, and in fairness he came within 0.7sec of achieving that.
‘It was an outstanding performance. His final lap in qualifying has got to be up there with the best laps of all time in qualifying. Then he converted that [to] build a very commanding lead and control the race.’
The result secured Red Bull’s sixth constructors’ title on the home circuit of its power unit partner, Honda. It also moved Verstappen to the brink of a third straight drivers’ championship and the imperfect possibility of it being served to him after the upcoming sprint race in Qatar.
This situation has been enabled by Sergio Perez’s poor form. The Mexican is having a dire season, despite still being second in the driver standings.
He is 177 points behind Verstappen, and only 33 ahead of Lewis Hamilton with six grands prix still to go, plus sprints in Doha, Austin and Sao Paulo.Another race, another win as Max Verstappen climbs on his victorious Red Bull at Suzuka (Picture: Shutterstock)
To be runner-up this season would be a sensational comeback for Hamilton. And if that happens, with both Daniel Ricciardo and Liam Lawson on Red Bull’s books, do we really think Checo (right) will still be there next year?
In Suzuka, he clipped Hamilton at the start, was penalised for a safety-car infringement, and then nerfed Kevin Magnussen off the track in a lazy and frustrated attempt to pass. It took Red Bull 25 laps to fix the car. Then Checo was despatched back on track for a couple of laps just to fulfil a stop-go injunction, for the Haas smash, so it would not carry over to the next event.
Horner said avoiding that hangover was the only positive of Perez’s day. The Red Bull’s reappearance confused Norris and Charles Leclerc, who thought it was Verstappen in trouble.
In the wounded car, Perez had slowed under the virtual safety car, a move which cost the McLaren driver almost ten seconds as he wasn’t sure he was allowed to overtake.
Perez’s two wins and four second places this season pales compared to his team-mate; Singapore was the only time Verstappen has finished outside the top two. He is on course to beat the record of 15 wins in a season he set last year. In 2023, he already has 13 grand-prix victories, plus the sprints in Austria and Belgium.
Amid suggestions an FIA technical directive introduced in Singapore may have, in effect, clipped Red Bull’s wings, Verstappen’s display in the land of the rising sun was an emphatic answer to the contrary.
He told doubters they ‘could go suck an egg’ after he put it on pole. Asked if Max had a point to prove, Horner said: ‘He is just a racer, and he doesn’t need a lot of motivation. But he came here very keen to re-establish the season he’s been having.’
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