The Formula 1 fans of Japan encapsulate everything best about the sport’s fandom perhaps better than any other nation.

From their deep appreciation and knowledge of the history of the sport to their incredible creativity on display in the grandstands and in how they show respect and admiration for all drivers throughout the field, it’s no wonder the Japanese Grand Prix is an event loved by drivers and teams alike.

Which is why it is such an injustice that circumstances conspired against the thousands who attended Friday’s practice day at the circuit, left watching on as just five of the 20 drivers completed any kind of timed lap. A combination of restricted wet weather tyres and a track which was neither wet enough for intermediates, nor sufficiently dry enough for drivers to risk running meant that only the earlier opening practice session was of any significance.

Although it may have been a hard deal for the fans who arrived at Suzuka to watching the fastest cars in the world in action, Friday’s virtual washout could actually make qualifying day – and the grand prix itself – more exciting as a result. Teams will head into Saturday with just an hour of meaningful practice under their belts and far less data to use than they would have otherwise expected.

Verstappen was quickest as usual but the field is close

Despite the disruption, Max Verstappenand Red Bull still set the pace in the early session – a 1’30.056 on the soft compound. That was almost two tenths of a second faster than team mate Sergio Perez and just over two tenths quicker than Australian Grand Prix winner Carlos Sainz Jnr in the fastest Ferrari. Verstappen described it as a “good start” to his weekend, but was conscious of the relatively small gap to the Ferraris and Mercedes behind.

“In general, it looks like everyone is a bit closer compared to last year and I don’t expect the same kind of gaps here at this track,” he said.

Sainz was also surprised by how relatively close he was to the world champion in the only worthwhile session of the day.

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“Honestly [we’re] a bit closer to the Red Bulls than I anticipated or expected,” said the Ferrari driver. “So it’s positive signs in terms of progress made from five months ago to now.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Suzuka, 2024
Sargeant’s crash interrupted McLaren’s soft tyre runs

“Still, it’s obviously FP1 – you don’t know what fuel loads and engine modes they are running. Obviously last year we were eight tenths off in quali and here to be two tenths off in FP1 was a good feeling or a good starting base. But they’re going to be difficult to beat this weekend.”

This weekend is unusual in that rather than having 12 months’ of development to compare to in the lap times, the move to an April race date means that the last round in Suzuka was just six months ago. In that time, Verstappen improved on his own best time from the 2023 opening practice session by an incredible 1.5 seconds.

While some of that could be explained by the far cooler ambient and track temperatures compared with September, the key difference is that Verstappen was up to 15kph faster through the Esses in the first sector than at the start of last year’s Japanese Grand Prix weekend. However, Sainz’s hunch that the Red Bulls might not be running at maximum power unit capacity is supported by Verstappen’s top speed, which was almost 10kph slower at the end of the straights than on his fastest first practice lap last year.

Heading into qualifying, which should be dry without a significant risk of rain, it looks like Q3 could be as competitive as it has been at any point in the early phase of this new season. Mercedes have been out of touch with Red Bull and Ferrari so far, but the colder conditions are clearly kinder to the W15, and helped George Russell and Lewis Hamilton lap within half a second of Verstappen.

After a double podium finish at Suzuka in 2023, McLaren too were likely faster than they appear on the timesheets alone on Friday. Logan Sargeant’s crash in the middle of the session disrupted both Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri’s laps on the soft tyre and Norris seems confident in the car’s potential over the rest of the weekend.

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George Russell, Mercedes, Suzuka, 2024
Mercedes were happy but all teams lack long-run data

“While I was on my best lap, the red flag came out and then the tyres drop off a lot on the second lap,” Norris explained.

“So I think we’re in a good position, probably around the third quickest team. But very, very close with us, Mercedes and Aston Martin – so kind of as you would expect – and Ferrari and Red Bull too far ahead. So I’m sure maybe it can narrow down a little bit into tomorrow but I think so far, probably as we expected and as it’s been all year.”

As a classic circuit, with fast turns and old-fashioned gravel traps galore, Suzuka often produces one of the more intense qualifying hours of the season. The track sees a frequency of red flag interventions that is much higher than average, as mistakes made at the limit will often result in crashes – just as Sargeant proved out of the final corner in Q1 back in September.

With another close field at the front, a punishing quick race track and teams not as dialled in on their set-ups as they would otherwise prefer to be, the ingredients seem to be in place for a genuinely exciting qualifying day. Which is exactly what the Japanese fans deserve after Friday’s disappointment.

Combined practice times

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Teams’ progress vs 2023

2024 Japanese Grand Prix

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