Max Verstappen set a foreboding pace in an overcast first practice session for the Japanese Grand Prix. The Dutchman fired early, taking top spot just minutes into the hour-long session and improving his time with every stint on fresh tires.
The Red Bull driver started on the hards, switched to Pirelli’s experimental medium tire and concluded with a blistering time on the softs. His final time of 1m31.647s blitzed Ferrari’s Singapore Grand Prix winner Carlos Sainz by 0.626s, the world champion fastest in every sector in part thanks to a brand-new Honda power unit bolted to the back of his car.
Lando Norris was third quickest for McLaren, 0.745s behind Verstappen after a late lap on fresh softs but 0.182s quicker that Charles Leclerc, who was 0.927s adrift.
Yuki Tsunoda was a surprise fifth for AlphaTauri at his home grand prix. The AT04 received a substantial upgrade last weekend in Singapore and delivered points via Liam Lawson, but the Japanese driver expects Suzuka to be a better test of the updates machine’s credentials, with early signs positive.
However, he raised the ire of Williams driver Logan Sargeant late in the session, the American complaining that the AlphaTauri driver tailed him for an entire run after failing to overtake through 130R and the chicane.
Fernando Alonso was a second adrift of Verstappen, the last of a trio split by just 0.076s in fourth, fifth and sixth.
Oscar Piastri was seventh with a new Mercedes engine and a late run on softs, finished ahead of Alex Albon’s Williams and AlphaTauri rookie Liam Lawson. The New Zealander was the most productive driver of the session, completing 28 laps around the track he raced around earlier this year in the Japanese Super Formula series.
A relatively high lap count for all drivers was helped by Pirelli handing each driver two extra sets of tires for Friday, both proposed replacements for the C2 compound for 2023. The tire manufacturer expects the proposed compound to produce more grip and be a better fit between the C1 and C3 compounds in the broader range. The current C2 is the medium tire for this weekend’s race.
Lance Stroll completed the top 10 for Aston Martin, beating Sergio Perez by just 0.003s, the Mexican fully 1.396s slower than his session-topping Red Bull teammate.
Pierre Gasly was 12th ahead of George Russell, the Mercedes driver using only the current and experimental medium tires to set his times.
Nico Hulkenberg was 14th for Haas ahead of Esteban Ocon’s Alpine and Lewis Hamilton, who’s also equipped with a new motor and opted against using the softs in FP1.
Alfa Romeo drivers Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu also used only medium tires on their way to 17th and 20th, sandwiching Haas driver Kevin Magnussen in 18th and Williams rookie Sargeant in 19th.