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Formula 1

Edd Straw's 2023 Japanese Grand Prix driver rankings

by Edd Straw
11 min read

Normal service in the 2023 Formula 1 season was resumed at the Japanese Grand Prix as Max Verstappen and Red Bull returned to form.

It proved Singapore was a momentary blip - but was Verstappen the best performer of the Suzuka weekend regardless of the machinery at his disposal?

Here's Edd Straw's verdict as he ranks the performances of the entire field:

How do the rankings work? The 20 drivers will be ranked in order of performance from best to worst on each grand prix weekend. This will be based on the full range of criteria, ranging from pace and racecraft to consistency and whether they made key mistakes. How close each driver got to delivering on the maximum performance potential of the car will be an essential consideration.

It’s important to note both that this reflects performance across the entire weekend, cognisant of the fact that qualifying is effectively ‘lap 0’ of the race and key to laying the foundations to the race, and that it is not a ranking of the all-round qualities of each driver. It’s simply about how they performed on a given weekend. Therefore, the ranking will fluctuate significantly from weekend to weekend.

And with each of the 10 cars fundamentally having different performance potential and ‘luck’ (ie factors outside of a driver’s control) contributing to the way the weekend plays out, this ranking will also differ significantly from the overall results.

Started: 1st Finished: 1st

Verstappen’s pole position lap was a Suzuka classic, a product of supreme confidence in a sweet-handling car, precision and his relentless desire to dominate.

Through the snake section he was devastatingly fast, with his advantage over Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez there counting for 0.427s of the near eight tenths of a second gap between them.

Save for a few seconds at the start where things “got a bit tight” with the fast-starting McLarens, victory was a foregone conclusion.

Verdict: A classic example of car and driver in perfect unison.

Started: 4th Finished: 4th

After a run of difficult events Leclerc hit the ground running at the start of the Suzuka weekend.

A combination of the improved aero consistency thanks to Ferrari’s floor upgrade, his own driving-style experiments and set-up tweaks meant Leclerc was much more comfortable and had a pace advantage over team-mate Carlos Sainz.

From fourth on the grid, he executed his race well and couldn’t have finished any higher. 

Verdict: Maximised the result in both qualifying and the race.

Started: 3rd Finished: 2nd

By his own admission, Norris didn’t deliver the pace he could have done in Q3 and that left him just behind team-mate Oscar Piastri.

But in the race, he was the quicker McLaren driver. He jumped Piastri at the start and briefly threatened Verstappen before settling into second place. 

Piastri’s opportunistic first pitstop, partially completed under the VSC, combined with time lost being cautious while passing the slowing Perez led to Norris losing the place that he was then handed back by team orders. That he then pulled away justified the decision. 

Verdict: Could have been quicker in qualifying, but drove an excellent race.

Started: 7th Finished: 5th

Hamilton prevailed in the intra-team Mercedes battle both in qualifying and the race.

While the team order helped him when he encountered one-stopping George Russell after his second stop, it likely just hastened the inevitable.

He also outpaced Russell in qualifying, which was a turnaround given he struggled to carry speed in the first sector in particular on Friday before changes for Saturday improved matters. 

Verdict: Likely got the best possible results in qualifying and the race. 

Started: 10th Finished: 8th

There were signs of frustration from Alonso, although that didn’t seem to impact his performance as he scraped into Q3 in an Aston Martin he didn’t feel was one of the five fastest cars around Suzuka.

In a car that wasn’t strong on the straights, he jumped to sixth at the start ahead of both Mercedes drivers but inevitably fell behind them.

Given the pace of the Aston Martin, eighth and being ahead of the Alpines was as good as it was likely to get.

Verdict: A strong weekend in a fading car.

Started: 2nd Finished: 3rd

Outqualifying Norris by 0.035s and notching up a first F1 podium finish was a great return for Piastri on his first visit to Suzuka.

Inevitably, there were a few rough edges as he could have lapped faster in qualifying, albeit not by enough to threaten Verstappen, and wasn’t quite as strong as Norris in the race - hence the instruction to let him past in the second stint - but that’s to be expected for a rookie.

He showed real progress, notably in making a big step in the snake on his final qualifying lap, only for the lap to get away from him in the more straightforward parts of the track.

Verdict: Hugely accomplished on his Suzuka debut, but patchy race pace. 

Started: 12th  Finished: 10th

Gasly struggled to find the rear stability he wanted during practice and blotted his copybook with a crash at Denger 2 at the end of FP2.

But a change to a set-up closer to team-mate Esteban Ocon’s for qualifying allowed him to reverse the trend of the weekend to date and outqualify the other Alpine.

Gasly was ninth on the final lap but having not been able to catch Alonso he was ordered, much to his frustration, to let Ocon pass him after they had swapped positions seven laps earlier, dropping him to 10th. 

Verdict: Recovered well after practice struggles.

Started: 8th Finished: 7th

Russell struggled a little more in Q3 than Hamilton for grip, completing his sole run ahead of the final flurry and ending up three-tenths slower than his Mercedes team-mate.

He pressured Hamilton and came close to getting ahead before their strategies diverged, with Russell switching to a one-stopper that wasn’t optimal but he executed it well to take seventh.

Verdict: A decent weekend, but should have been quicker in qualifying.

Started: 14th Finished: 9th

Ocon looked to have the edge on Gasly until the end of Q2 when he was shaded by his team-mate.

His race could have come to an end at the start when he squeezed Valtteri Bottas into Alex Albon, picking up a puncture. This meant he pitted at the end of the lap to move onto a de facto one-stopper with two hard stints, which meant he moved ahead of Gasly.

He let his team-mate through in the closing stages but was handed the position back on the last lap.

Verdict: Marginally the lower-performing Alpine driver.

Started: 9th Finished: 12th

Tsunoda made the most of the improved AlphaTauri to make it to Q3 having had a clear edge over team-mate Liam Lawson in Q2.

After being outfought by Lawson on the first lap, he got ahead with an undercut before running longer in the middle stint and losing the place again.

It added up to a frustrating race for Tsunoda, who felt he spent too much time in traffic, although the AlphaTauri race pace was a little disappointing overall. 

Verdict: Strong qualifying but frustrating race.

Started: 11th Finished: 6th

Sainz felt he was on the backfoot come qualifying after focusing on various set-up experiments during Friday, compounded by time lost in the first sector that stretched what he felt was a deficit of 0.1-0.2s to Leclerc to 0.308s.

But in the race, he “felt back to normal” and on the pace, surviving a risky move at the start that led to contact with Hamilton.

He was undercut by Hamilton at the second pitstops, running four laps longer, which ultimately turned fifth into sixth place even though he was able to regain a position lost on the one-stopping Russell.

Verdict: Solid, but second-best Ferrari.

Started: 11th Finished: 11th

Lawson didn’t quite have the edge of pace Tsunoda showed, lapping three-tenths slower in Q2 and just missing out on a successive place in Q3.

He battled past his team-mate on the opening lap, completing a great move into Degner 1, then lost the place to an undercut when Tsunoda was called in first in response to Hulkenberg.

Lawson ran a shorter middle stint, allowing him to undercut his way back past Tsunoda in a race where the AlphaTauris struggled with tyre deg.

Verdict: Another decent weekend’s work.

Started: 12th Finished: DNF

Albon produced a good qualifying performance, albeit perhaps not a great one given the pace was probably just in the Williams to have slipped into Q3.

But the lap was good enough to put him within striking distance of the points at the start, only for Bottas to clout him.

The resulting damage made the car “undriveable” and meant he had no chance to recover before inevitably retiring at around half-distance. 

Verdict: A decent weekend derailed by lap-one hit.

Started: 15th Finished: 15th

Magnussen’s qualifying performance at Suzuka was arguably more encouraging for his progress in adapting to a car he’s struggled with despite only being 15th.

Realistically scraping into Q2 was as good as it was going to get, but at a track with plenty of corners that didn’t suit the Haas and with entry characteristics that Magnussen has struggled with, his pace relative to team-mate Nico Hulkenberg was good.

His race was compromised by a punt by Perez, forcing a first pitstop that was too early and condemning him to finish last, 20 seconds behind his team-mate. 

Verdict: Signs of progress amid Haas’s struggles. 

Started: 18th Finished: 14th

Set a time three-tenths slower than Magnussen in Q1 and failed to make Q2 as a result.

Tyre-management concerns meant Hulkenberg committed to a three-stopper, although the car pace always meant the Haas drivers were destined to finish at the back.

Having run 12th briefly in the first stint before slipping backwards, it was a futile race against competitive gravity.

Verdict: Far from his best weekend, albeit in a doomed cause.

Started: 17th Finished: DNF

Being eliminated in Q1 while Alonso reached Q3 looks terrible on paper, but the reality was Stroll came close to ensuring his team-mate was eliminated in the first stage of qualifying.

A tenth up into the chicane, a poor exit turned that advantage into a deficit of 0.210s.

The start incidents transformed his prospects in the race as he ran 11th in the first stint. He was chasing Lawson when he retired amid concerns about his rear wing.

Verdict: A more solid weekend than the results suggest.

Started: 16th Finished: DNF

Bottas felt happy with his Q1 lap but was disappointed with the pace. The team reckoned that time given away in the first part of the lap cost maybe three tenths in a car that could have been a Q3 threat with a perfect run. 

Bottas’s race was ruined by Ocon squeezing him into Albon, then the Logan Sargeant clash.

Verdict: Not at his best, but unlucky in the race.

Started: 19th Finished: 13th

While Zhou put the blame on traffic, his error at Turn 9 on his final Q1 lap ultimately ensured he started on the back row.

He wasn’t to blame for the damage he picked up that forced a front-wing change on the first lap, although after that he had a decent run to take 13th place in a car the team felt had the speed to have beaten AlphaTauri. 

Verdict: A disappointing weekend, primarily thanks to qualifying. 

Started: 5th Finished: DNF

Team-mate Verstappen was always likely to be out of sight, although the near eight-tenths margin in qualifying - just over half of which was in the first sector - was even bigger than expected.

Although Perez suggested this was stretched because he only had one set of tyres for Q3, that was a consequence of his first-run performance in Q2 not being good enough to be certain of advancing.

His race was a disaster, although the initial damage he picked up on the run to Turn 1 wasn’t his fault given he “was a passenger” as he was squeezed.

However, getting the penalty for passing under the safety car when pitting and clouting Sargeant was.

Verdict: Race errors compounded pace deficit to Verstappen.

Started: Pits Finished: DNF

Sargeant’s post-race rankings trigger a strong sense of deja vu as yet again he made some promising progress before things came unstuck.

This time, it was a crash at the final kink while correcting a slight snap at the end of his first Q1 flier.

The team described it as “quite a minor mistake” but it had big consequences, forcing it to rebuild his car around the spare chassis - and earning a 10s penalty in the process.

Sargeant then clouted Bottas in the race, earning another penalty before he then retired from last with the resulting floor damage.

Verdict: Errors torpedoed his weekend. 

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