Race Predictions: The F1 Japanese Grand Prix 2024

Max Verstappen dominates, but rivals Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc vie for victory against a backdrop of Japan's rich motorsport heritage. Jenson Button & Mai Ikuzawa share their predictions.

Race Predictions: The F1 Japanese Grand Prix 2024

There isn’t much that compares to being in the vicinity of a Formula One car. Seeing one up close is like walking into a mechanical watch movement, with its multitude of tiny moving parts and intricate detailing. Seeing one go around a track is another thing entirely. While modern F1 cars lack the banshee wail of the older, high-revving V12s and V10s of the 2000s, current-generation cars have an appeal all their own. They are large, sleek machines with huge tyres and curved wings, generating more g-force than ever and slaloming through fast corners like they’re on rails. But while the cars themselves are impressive, the on-track action in recent times has not always been thrilling. 

Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing have dominated the last two years. They look set to do the same in 2024, even in the mix of scandals and the genuine threat of Max cutting his contract short. The recent two years follow a cyclical domination that calls to mind the imperious Schumacher era of the early 2000s, the Vettel era of the early 2010s, and the Hamilton/Mercedes dominance of the second half of the same decade. This is undoubtedly the Verstappen era, and each race is his to lose. 

Last time out, he did just that. A brake failure caused a retirement on lap 4 in Australia, cutting short an on-track battle with Carlos Sainz Jr. Sainz overtook Verstappen before the failure, and drove flawlessly to the finish line, a feat doubly impressive considering his appendicitis surgery just two weeks prior. He deserved it, but Max’s retirement robbed fans of something it's been missing of late, close racing at the front. Will that happen this time around, on the notoriously technical bends of Japan’s Suzuka? One of the classic F1 tracks, Suzuka is a driver’s favourite, with a mixture of fast, flowing corners, tight hairpins and length straights. "Throughout my career, it was very special competing in Japan, particularly when I was driving for Honda", says world champion and Rolex ambassador Jenson Button.

It’s a tight and twisty track that is mentally and physically draining due to the fast changes in direction. It’s a true racing driver’s circuit.

Jenson Button, photo courtesy of Rolex.
Photo courtesy of Rolex.

Suzuka is a high-downforce track, with the high-speed ’S’ curves of the first sector, the Degners and the iconic 130R corner resulting in heavy tyre wear and multiple pit stops. Verstappen may have won last year’s race by 20 seconds, but there was plenty to see elsewhere, with the McLarens of Norris and Piastri securing a double podium and the Ferraris and Mercedes splitting each other from fourth to seventh. 

This year’s race might prove similar. Verstappen had an imperious start to his 2024 campaign, winning the first two races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in dominant fashion. While his streak came to an end in Australia, we expect him to dominate in Suzuka. Both Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc are the closest challengers to Max currently. Sainz will be looking to further bolster his future in the sport ahead of Lewis Hamilton taking his seat next year, while Leclerc, who is only four points behind Verstappen in the Drivers Standings, would like nothing more than to start winning races again.

Can anyone really contend with Verstappen this weekend? “I think we already know who will win”, says Mai Ikuzawa, creative director and daughter of Japanese racing legend Tetsu Ikuzawa. Her family has had much success at Suzuka, with Team Ikuzawa, the racing outfit her father created, winning the Suzuka 8-Hour Endurance in 1989. “It’s a shame they moved this year’s Grand Prix to April when the weather is milder. We want the infamous typhoon weather here to make the race more fun!” She has a point. 

Racing at Suzuka is always entertaining though, with the diehard Japanese fans providing one of the best atmospheres on the calendar. Expect fans to get to the track early and leave late, sometimes even dressed up in character as their favourite driver. “When I won the Grand Prix in 2011, many fans stayed late to continue the celebrations – it’s this kind of energy that means so much to the drivers and ensures Suzuka is one of our favourites”, says Button.

Max Verstappen wins 2024 season opener in Bahrain, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool.
Photo courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari.
Photo courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari.

The history at Suzuka also extends well beyond F1, contributing to wider Japanese car culture. Ikuzawa has recently revived her family’s racing team Team Ikuzawa, “transforming it into a contemporary Japanese motor-racing heritage brand for the 21st century. The aim is to convey the essence of Japanese design and racing culture through a distinct product line”. She’s done so with designs that reference the liveries the team raced with at Suzuka. Her father, meanwhile, had a hand in the early success of the Prince Skyline GT-B.

The ‘Skyline Legend’ was ignited when my father, Tetsu Ikuzawa, overtook the Porsche 904 at Suzuka. The crowds all stood up and cheered and made Japanese cars a serious contender in world motorsports.

Elsewhere, it is, of course, Yuki Tsunoda’s home race this weekend, and there will be plenty of fanfare around the young RB driver, who is currently comfortably outperforming his teammate Daniel Ricciardo. Whether there’s much fighting at the front or not, we’re rooting for the 23-year-old to do well in front of his home crowd. The Japanese fans and his future in Formula One depends on it.

Photo courtesy of Ikuzawa Archives.
Photo courtesy of Ikuzawa Archives.
James Hunt, Japan 1976.

Japan FP1 - Friday, April 5, 2024
UK - 3:30 am, Friday
USA - 10.30 pm, Thursday
Canada - 10:30 pm, Thursday
Australia - 1:30 pm, Friday
India - 8:00 am, Friday

Japan FP2 - Friday, April 5, 2024
UK - 7:00 am, Friday
USA - 2:00 am, Fiday
Canada - 2:00 am, Friday
Australia - 5:00 pm, Friday
India - 11:30 am, Friday

Japan FP3 - Saturday, April 6, 2024
UK - 3:30 am, Saturday
USA - 10:30 pm, Friday
Canada - 10:30 pm, Friday
Australia - 1:30 pm, Saturday
India - 8:00 am, Saturday

Japanese Grand Prix Race - Sunday, April 7, 2024
UK -6:00 am, Sunday
USA - 1:00 am, Sunday
Canada - 1:00 am, Sunday
Australia - 3:00 pm, Sunday
India - 10:30 am, Sunday