Dutchman clocks fastest time in practice session
Red Bull chief Christian Horner on Friday hailed a more mature Max Verstappen as the Formula One world champion looks to take a step closer to defending his title in Japan.
Verstappen can move towards touching distance of his third straight championship at the Japanese Grand Prix, having won 12 of 15 races so far this season.
The Dutchman is looking to bounce back from a disappointing fifth-place finish at last week’s Singapore Grand Prix, which ended his record winning streak of 10 straight races.
Horner has been impressed by Verstappen’s response, saying the driver had been “very constructive” in reviewing what went wrong in Singapore.
“I think he’s shown great leadership, great maturity in the way that he handled it,” said Horner.
“Everybody was disappointed in last weekend – you get used to winning, and it’s a good reminder in how much it hurts to lose.
“And if it doesn’t hurt to lose, then you’re in the wrong business.”
Verstappen made what Horner called a “statement of intent” by clocking the fastest time in Friday’s first practice session in Suzuka.
The Dutchman reeled off a quickest lap of 1min 31.647sec — 0.626sec faster than second-place Carlos Sainz of Ferrari, who won in Singapore.
Horner said Verstappen “just gets sharper and sharper”.
“The raw speed and ability has been there from day one, and that hunger and passion that he drives with,” he said.
“Now he couples that with experience and the way he reads the race, the way he manages tyres, the way he reads the situation.
“He pushes the team, we push him and we both go to new levels.”
Verstappen cannot clinch the title on Sunday but a favourable result can set him up to seal the deal at the Qatar Grand Prix next month.
He was quick to lay down a marker in his first practice at Suzuka, and aimed a barb at George Russell after coming up behind his slow-moving Mercedes.
“That Mercedes was so dangerous in the way there,” Verstappen said on his team radio.
Russell, who crashed on the final lap as he went for the win in Singapore last week, had two wheels over the white line as Verstappen approached him.
McLaren’s Lando Norris, who finished second in Singapore, was third-fastest at 1min 32.392sec.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was fourth, AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda was fifth in his home grand prix, and Fernando Alonso was sixth in his Aston Martin.
Lance Stroll was back in action after missing the Singapore race, following a huge crash in qualifying that destroyed his Aston Martin.
Slight rain began to fall at the end of the practice session, although Sunday’s race is forecast to be dry.
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