The pace advantage held by Max Verstappen over the rest of the Formula 1 field firmly indicates that Red Bull is back for the Japanese Grand Prix following its slump in Singapore.
He dominated both Friday sessions, ending at least three-tenths up on the chasing pack in both sessions as the RB19 immediately hit the ground running with Verstappen's fastest lap of a 1:30.688 being set on his first timed attempt.
In a car that has suffered tyre warm-up issues this season, Verstappen was immediately into the rhythm needed as he goes about searching for that 13th win of the season.
Interestingly, Verstappen did not set his fastest time on the Soft or Medium compounds - but on the Pirelli prototype tyre being tested this weekend.
Ostensibly it is a C2 tyre, but of the type Pirelli hopes to introduce for 2024, with the hope that the revised compound would deliver more grip.
However, the general feedback from the drivers was that tyre degradation is expected to be high at the abrasive Suzuka with generally low-grip conditions, but that the tyre did not offer the expected step in performance.
For the analysis below, we will assume that the prototype tyres is roughly similar to the performance of the usual C2 - Medium tyre for this weekend, which is in line with Pirelli's predictions.
Japanese Grand Prix - Free Practice 2 long runs
|Lap||VER (T)||LEC (M)||NOR (S)||SAI (M)||RUS (S)|
What the data tells us
Across his eight-lap stint once the outlier of a 1:52.2 is removed, Verstappen is able to comfortably lap in the mid 1:37 region consistently with six of the eight laps within this zone.
His first lap of the run was 1:36.4, with a loss of performance of 1.8s to a 1:38.2 by the end of his run.
Both Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz start in the same region as Verstappen for the opening handful of laps, but gradually fall away to the low, then high 1:38 region, giving Verstappen about a three to four-tenth advantage.
Lando Norris also starts off comparatively well to the RB19, albeit a few tenths behind Verstappen's mid 1:37 times but like Ferrari, falls away to the tune of 1.8s and is sandwiched between Leclerc and Sainz. However, Norris's stint does need to be caveated with the fact that he was on the Softs for this run and not the Mediums.
Tyre degradation is therefore expected to be faster and harder for the McLaren.
The Woking squad is comfortably ahead of Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton declaring that he had little confidence in the W14.
George Russell completed his race stint on the Soft tyres - allowing for a comparison to Norris, which does not make good reading for the Mercedes.
Although Russell is initially faster, to the tune of nearly seven-tenths at its peak, his fall-off is hard, ending up at about seven-tenths behind the McLaren in a handful of laps.
Based on this data, Verstappen should enjoy a comfortable margin over the field come race day with Red Bull back firing on all cylinders, as was widely expected.
The gap to the pack led by Ferrari and Norris is not so big as to it can't be closed down, but it is still a sizeable advantage in the Dutchman's back pocket, especially given Red Bull will make its usual big steps forward overnight into Saturday, with parc ferme conditions applying once the car rolls out for qualifying.