Liam Lawson has held off a late charge from AlphaTauri teammate Yuki Tsunoda to come home 11th in this evening’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.
Max Verstappen returned to winning ways in commanding fashion, taking the victory by over 19 seconds and delivering Red Bull the 2023 Constructors Championship.
McLaren’s Lando Norris finished second for the second consecutive race, while Australia’s Oscar Piastri secured his maiden podium with third.
It was a contrast of fortunes for Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez, who was involved in Lap 1 contact with Lewis Hamilton and forced to pit for a new front wing under caution, copping a five-second penalty for a Safety Car infringement as he came in.
To make matters worse, Perez came into contact with Haas’s Kevin Magnussen several laps later, sending him into a spin and receiving damage and a further five-second penalty as a result. He would retire the car, briefly returning to serve his penalty to avoid a grid drop for an unserved penalty at the next round at Qatar.
The contact between Perez and Hamilton heading into Turn 1 on Lap 1, deemed a racing incident, was just one of two off the start, when further back Valtteri Bottas was squeezed to the left and into Alex Albon. Both cars would sustain damage, as would Guanyu Zhou who picked up a puncture when running over debris.
All three would return to running, however Albon and Bottas would retire later in the race.
While this unfolded Lawson had accomplished what he said was a goal following the Singapore Grand Prix; getting off to a good start. From 11th on the grid he moved forward, catching his teammate ahead.
The two ran precariously close side-by-side for several corners, with the Kiwi eventually taking the position on the inside line at Turn 11.
Up front, Verstappen held off a good start from both Piastri and Norris, swerving left to cover off the Australian off the front-row, only for Norris to attempt to go around the outside into Turn 1. Verstappen responded to the threat, pulling into a clear lead by Turn 2.
It was all Verstappen from here, and the defending world champion would only briefly relinquish his lead during the pit windows.
Despite Lawson running in 10th, ahead of Tsunoda, AlphaTauri opted to pit the local driver first, seeing him change to soft tyres on Lap 10. Lawson followed the next lap, but would lose out given the powerful nature of the undercut at Suzuka.
Perez and Magnussen came together not long after AlphaTauri had made both stops, which resulted in a brief Virtual Safety Car period and allowed several others to come in for cheap stops. Esteban Ocon and Piastri were amoung the biggest benefactors.
By Lap 20 Lawson was back to 11th, behind his teammate but ahead of Lance Stroll, who quickly made up ground and threatened a move before a rear wing failure saw the Aston Martin driver forced to retire.
Pierre Gasly, in a much faster Alpine, was the next onto Lawson’s tail, passing with ease on Lap 23 and doing the same to Tsunoda the following circuit.
Lawson was given the benefit of the undercut on the second round of stops, coming in on Lap 26 and switching to hards, returning to the rear of the field, with only 15 cars remaining at this point.
He would gain two places over the next lap, making a clean pass on Magnussen and successfully undercutting his teammate.
By this point Verstappen had pulled clear to a lead of well over ten seconds, which would continue to grow until the chequered flag.
Mercedes briefly ran as high as second with George Russell, who opted for a one-stop strategy on a circuit notorious for tyre degradtion. Both McLaren’s dropped behind him following their second stops, but would easily pass over the following laps, as would Charles Leclerc, who finished fourth.
Hamilton caught Russell in the final stages and Mercedes opted not to switch the cars immediately. This saw Carlos Sainz catch the rear of the duo before team orders came into play.
Russell was ordered to let Hamilton through, and when the duo switched places the seven-time champion backed off later in the lap to give his teammate DRS against the Ferrari. It was to no avail for Russell, who was quickly swept up on the main straight and relegated to seventh, where he would finish.
Sainz attempted to hunt down Hamilton in the closing stages but ran out of time to make progress, setting for sixth.
Sitting just outside the points, Lawson and Tsunoda were locked in a tense battle over the final 10 laps, with the local driver overturning a four second deficit on newer rubber but unable to make a pass.
The result of 11th equals his result from Monza, and provided the first opportunity for him to have a fair matchup with Tsunoda, despite the latter having hometown advantage. He responded to the call and further proved AlphaTauri’s decision on their 2024 lineup would have been a tough choice.
Fernando Alonso, Ocon and Pierre Gasly rounded out the points, with the latter coming home 16 seconds ahead of the car behind, being Lawson.
Formula 1 returns for the Qatar Grand Prix in two weeks, on the same weekend as the Bathurst 1000. It’s believed Lawson may continue to fill in as Daniel Ricciardo continues to recover from his injury.
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