Max Verstappen
Red Bull's Formula One world champion driver Max Verstappen AFP / Patrick T. FALLON

Last week's Singapore Grand Prix saw a very rare dip in form for the Red Bull Racing team. However, Max Verstappen was back on top of the time sheets on Friday as the Japanese Grand Prix weekend kicked off with the first two practice sessions.

The championship leader set the early pace on FP1, taking the morning session's best time at the Suzuka Circuit ahead of last week's race winner, Carlos Sainz. The Ferrari driver was then followed closely by McLaren ace Lando Norris, who also slotted in behind him in Singapore.

The F1 circus made the short trip from Singapore to Japan and are back in action again this week after what could have been the most thrilling race of the 2023 campaign. It was a hot and humid weekend in Singapore, but Japan has provided some relief from the heat with much cooler conditions that seem to suit the Red Bulls.

Red Bulls bounce back

Last week saw the first race that was won by a non-Red Bull driver so far this season. Sainz also broke Verstappen's 10-race winning streak, but it seems that the status quo has returned.

Verstappen finished only in fifth place in Singapore, with teammate Sergio Perez only managing to cross the line in eighth place. However, the Japanese Grand Prix weekend started with Verstappen logging the best time of FP1 with a prototype C2 tyre, followed by Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso who was 0.724s behind.

The Dutchman also dominated the runs in soft tyres, with a lap time of 1m 31.647s beating Sainz, who was trailing by 0.626s. McLtgaren's Lando Norris and the second Ferrari of Charles Leclerc came in to claim third and fourth place, making it clear that the two teams are determined to remain consistent coming off great results from Singapore.

More drivers aiming to redeem themselves

Home hero Yuki Tsunoda was also flying in fifth, and he will be hoping to have a good home race after suffering a total disaster last week when he was forced to retire after sustaining damage on Lap 1.

Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso also saw his form dip after having enjoyed a second-place finish in the Netherlands not so long ago. He will be hoping to get back on the podium to get back his strong form from early in the season. His teammate Lance Stroll is also back in action after missing the Singapore Grand Prix following a heavy crash during qualifying.

Meanwhile, Oscar Piastri will want to finish closer to his McLaren teammate after having just signed a fresh contract with the team.

Elsewhere, AlphaTauri driver Liam Lawson has been making waves after subbing for the injured Daniel Ricciardo. He has already managed to score points after only three races, and there is a lot of buzz surrounding him for a possible 2024 race seat.

The Mercedes pair of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were relatively quiet during FP1. They should be fired up this week after a thrilling end to the Singapore Grand Prix wherein they were clearly the two fastest cars on track.

They were charging in third and fourth place in the closing stages of the race and seemed to have the speed to catch both Sainz and Norris up in front. However, a masterclass decision by Sainz to slow down to give Norris a DRS boots allowed them to keep their positions. The frustration also forced Russell into an error which sent him into the wall and into the barriers in the final lap.

He will want to put that behind him and try to get a better result in Japan. However, the Mercedes practice times have not been impressive so far.

FP2 ends prematurely

The afternoon session was cut short after Alpine's Pierre Gasly crashed into the barriers, sending out a red flag. The session will not be resumed, but Verstappen has also topped time sheets. Leclerc, Norris and Sainz are close behind, followed by Russell. Alonso is in sixth while the best of the rest is Alex Albon, who has managed to take his Williams up to seventh place.

There will be another practice session on Saturday morning before qualifying, but so far it is starting to look like the Red Bulls are back after a minor hiccup.