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Max Verstappen returns to the top in opening Suzuka practice session

After his surprise fifth place finish last Sunday in Singapore, championship leader Max Verstappen resumed business as usual by topping the opening practice session for this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.

The Red Bull driver, who can no longer secure the title in Japan but looks set to receive confirmation of his third drivers’ championship at the following round in Qatar, was 0.626s faster than his nearest competition, Singapore race winner Carlos Sainz.

Red Bull’s lack of performance on the streets of Singapore has yet to be fully explained, but is not expected to continue at Suzuka, where the circuit’s long-radius corners present the perfect stage for the RB19 to showcase its aerodynamic prowess.

Despite that, Verstappen’s teammate, Sergio Perez, concluded the session down in 11th place after making a mistake at the final chicane on a fast lap towards the end of the hour.

While Red Bull is anticipated to return to the front in Suzuka, Ferrari’s run of form could be at risk as the Italian team has struggled on circuits like this in 2023. Nevertheless, Sainz and teammate Charles Leclerc made a solid start to the weekend with the second and fourth fastest times.

Leclerc ran wide at the hairpin towards the end of the session but his car appeared undamaged after a trip through the gravel.

The Ferrari drivers were split by a late effort by Lando Norris, whose McLaren is also expected to perform well this weekend.

The only Japanese driver on the grid, Yuki Tsunoda, set the fifth fastest time, 0.950s off Verstappen for sister team AlphaTauri. Tsunoda, alongside Daniel Ricciardo who is still recovering from breaking a bone in his hand at the Dutch Grand Prix, is expected to be confirmed as an AlphaTauri driver for 2024 in the near future.

Fernando Alonso was sixth fastest for Aston Martin ahead of the second McLaren of Oscar Piastri, Williams of Alex Albon, the second AlphaTauri of Liam Lawson and the second Aston Martin of Lance Stroll in tenth.

Mercedes had a low-key session after opting against using the softest compound tire, with George Russell 13th and Lewis Hamilton 16th.

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