Piastri scores maiden F1 podium as Verstappen wins in Japan
By Mat Coch
Sunday 24th September, 2023 - 4:40pm
Max Verstappen claimed victory in the Japanese Grand Prix while Oscar Piastri scored his first Formula 1 podium.
Piastri was third behind team-mate Lando Norris in a composed performance, passing George Russell on track to secure the silverware.
Verstappen was peerless once more, his victory delivering Red Bull the constructors’ championship, the sixth in the team’s history.
A battle at the front off the line saw Norris almost steal the lead from Verstappen into the first corner, only to lose out and hold on to second.
Piastri dropped to third when he was pinched to the inside by the defending Dutchman, forcing him to back out and drop a spot to his team-mate.
In the pack, Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Ocon struck trouble, littering the front straight with debris and drawing the Safety Car.
Bottas picked up a damaged front wing and right-front puncture after he was squeezed by Ocon, pushing him into the path of Alex Albon where they made contact.
It saw both into the lane, the Williams having been launched skywards briefly.
It wasn’t the only drama as Lewis Hamilton reported contact with Sergio Perez, forcing the Red Bull to box for a new front wing.
Zhou Guanyu also had an off in the other Alfa Romeo Sauber in what was a disastrous opening two corners for the Swiss squad.
Racing resumed at the start of Lap 5, Verstappen clear in the lead over Norris, Piastri, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, Fernando Alonso, and the two Mercedes.
Russell put manners on Hamilton at the chicane at the end of the lap, immediately coming back under attack from his team-mate – the pair almost touching.
A clash between Sargeant and Bottas half a lap earlier pitched the latter into a spin at the hairpin.
The Williams driver clouted the right-rear of the Alfa Romeo Sauber to deposit him in the gravel – Sargeant heading to the lane, eventually followed by Bottas once he recovered.
Perez picked up a penalty for a Safety Car infringement, the Mexican overtaking two cars as he exited the lane, though gave one back soon after.
The Red Bull drama was in the wars again on Lap 12, punting Kevin Magnussen at the hairpin as he clumsily attempted to pass.
It left him with front wing damage, again, while Magnussen was left pointing the wrong direction.
Piastri boxed as the Virtual Safety Car was deployed to clean up the mess left by the Perez-Magnussen incident, swapping his medium tyres for hards.
It saw him drop to ninth, though having at least partially offset his time loss in the lane courtesy of the Virtual Safety Car.
A lap later, Perez’s race was over.
Having reported that his car felt funny he returned to the pits where he was pushing into the garage.
The battle between the Mercedes duo soon resumed, Russell harrying Hamilton who dropped a wheel exiting the second Degner.
With a better run, Russell shaped up for a move at Spoon, only for his team-mate to run him wide and hold the place.
On Lap 16, Verstappen headed to the lane, handing the lead to Norris.
In the sequence, Piastri had moved ahead of Norris courtesy of the undercut, though such was Verstappen’s advantage that he held on to the virtual lap on the road.
The two McLarens ran third and fourth, the car ahead being that of Russell who had not stopped.
He was the last to do so, the McLaren pit wall hypothesising he was running a one-stop strategy and therefore only a threat if they abused their tyres.
Russell eventually pitted at the end of Lap 24, going on to the hard tyres with a view to running to the finish.
An antsy Norris complained of being held up by Piastri, McLaren ultimately agreeing and swapping the pair into Turn 1 as they began Lap 27.
Curious scenes at Red Bull saw Perez climb back into his car, despite being more than 14 laps down and otherwise retired from the race.
With 20 laps remaining, the pit stop cycle had completed, with Verstappen holding a 15s advantage over Norris, who’d opened a 5.6s margin to Piastri.
The crucial gap from there was back to Russell in seventh, the Mercedes 34.6s away from the race leader – a little under 15s back from the third-placed McLaren, and just inside the pit window for Norris.
Leclerc heralded the start of the race’s final chapter when he pitted for a second time on Lap 35.
Fitting a set of hards, he planned to run to the end of the race, rejoining sixth behind Russell.
Hamilton had pitted at the same time, triggering McLaren into responding with Piastri next time around.
It was a prudent move as the Aussie rejoined fifth, two seconds ahead of Leclerc – another lap would have seen the margin rather tighter.
Next in was Norris, who rejoined fourth on the road behind Verstappen, Sainz, and the one-stopping Russell.
Verstappen took service at the end of Lap 37, maintaining the lead while Norris stole third back from Russell with a simple pass into Turn 1.
Sainz completed the pit sequence among the leaders when he stopped on Lap 38, the Singapore race winner dropping to seventh.
With Verstappen on Lap 40, Perez rejoined the race, 33 laps down and unable to be officially classified.
He was out for just a single lap before being called back into the box.
As that was happening, Piastri had caught Russell.
The McLaren driver had a 11-lap tyre advantage and had been a second a lap.
Predictably he made short work of the Englishman an reclaimed third place.
Piastri had made Russell defend into the chicane at the end of the lap, then got better traction to complete the move into Lap 1 at the start of Lap 42.
Red Bull appeared to have exploited the rules with Perez, who had retired from the race without having served a penalty for clouting Magnussen.
That would have converted into a grid penalty in Qatar, so reinstating the Mexican and taking the pain now, when he was already all but officially out of the race, was a clever move.
Russell meanwhile was struggling for pace and was soon being challenged by Leclerc for fourth.
The Ferrari driver was able to go the long way around at Turn 2 to make the pass as they began Lap 45.
There was a suggestion the Monegasque had left the track and gained an advantage in making the move, though officials looked into it and decided that wasn’t the case.
At Mercedes, the call came to swap Hamilton and Russell as Sainz began looming, a message that was not received well by Russell.
Nonetheless, he heeded it and opened the door into Turn 1, ensuring to slam it shut again before the prancing horse bolted.
Hamilton was instructed to keep Russell in DRS range to help with his defence, though it made no difference and Sainz claimed the place at the start of Lap 50.
It left the order Verstappen from Norris, Piastri, Leclerc, Hamilton, Sainz, and Russell, the top 10 rounded out by Alonso, Ocon, and Pierre Gasly.
Liam Lawson was 11th, impressing again as he finished ahead of team-mate Yuki Tsunoda despite starting two places behind him.