How a fired up Max Verstappen delivered on a whole new level at Suzuka

SUZUKA, Japan -- When one driver dominates a season in the way Max Verstappen has dominated 2023, it's easy to gloss over exceptional performances.

The feat of winning race after race becomes difficult to contextualise, especially when his nearest rival is nowhere to be seen at the chequered flag.

It all starts to look a bit too easy, which is the one thing it's not.

Yet, Verstappen's victory in Japan really was something special. It was a reminder that when the 25-year-old has a point to prove, he is able to manifest another level of superiority.

The abrupt end to Verstappen's 10-race winning streak a round earlier in Singapore had hurt -- more, perhaps, than he let on at the time.

To help take his mind off the defeat, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner invited Verstappen for a game of padel tennis in the days after the Singapore race. It was intended as a friendly knock about, but Verstappen needed to let off some steam.

"We all left Singapore knowing that ultimately the winning run that we had would come to an end, but we were still a little frustrated," Horner said on Sunday evening in Suzuka. "I played padel tennis with Max on Wednesday and he was properly fired up!

"He made it clear and said that he wanted to win the race in Japan by 20 seconds."

At the chequered flag on Sunday, Verstappen was 19.387s clear of Lando Norris in second place. Horner puts the missing 0.613s down to a backmarker not obeying blue flags on the final lap, but the winning margin was remarkable nonetheless.

"He's just a racer," Horner added. "He doesn't need a lot of motivation, but he certainly came here very keen to reestablish the season he's been having."

Along with bouncing back from the Singapore defeat, there was also a more nuanced point Verstappen wanted to make in Japan.

Some observers at the street race linked Red Bull's sudden loss in performance with an FIA technical directive aimed at stamping out the use of overly flexible wings - something that is outlawed by the regulations but could lead to big performance gains if exploited.

The implication was that Red Bull's season-long advantage may have come from nefarious means and, perhaps, the poor performance in Singapore was because the team had finally been found out.

It's not the first time Verstappen's achievements have been doubted.

When he won his first title in 2021, Verstappen had to deal with accusations that he was a "champion with an asterisk" because his deciding victory at the final race in Abu Dhabi hinged on the controversial decisions of then race director Michael Masi. Had Masi not bypassed the correct procedure for restarting the race after a safety car, Verstappen's rival Lewis Hamilton would have won.

Question marks were also raised over his second title in 2022, with some critics, albeit far fewer than in 2021, pointing to Red Bull's overspend under the budget cap as the reason for the team's success in the new set of regulations (a woolly argument, but one that refused to go away).

Therefore, the chance to nip the new Singapore/technical directive theory in the bud with a truly dominant performance in Japan was undoubtedly extra fuel for Verstappen over the weekend.

After taking pole position by over half a second, Verstappen said anyone still questioning the legality of his Red Bull this year could "suck on an egg".

"You could tell from the very first lap in first practice when he was 1.8 seconds quicker than the rest of field that he was totally focused on this event," Horner added. "It's a circuit that he loves and enjoys and it's the ultimate driver's circuit as a test round here.

"It was an outstanding performance, his laps in qualifying yesterday, particularly his final lap, will stand out as one of the best laps of all time in qualifying. He then converted that after not the best of getaways, but he was able to hand on to the lead thereafter and build a very commanding lead and win the race."

Qualifying was particularly impressive. Verstappen was 0.581s faster than Oscar Piastri in second place -- 0.227s of which came from the first sector alone. The series of fast corners that make up the first sector at Suzuka are relentless, starting with the high-speed Turns 1 and 2, followed by a series of esses that widen in radius as they progress uphill to the fast and sweeping Dunlop corner.

It's a section of track that can result in lap times spiralling upwards or downwards depending on the performance of driver and car. Each corner sets the driver up for the next, so a mistake early on will compound in the next corner and even more by the third. What's more, even the slightest slide can result in the surface temperature of the tyres rising, reducing grip which in turn leads to more sliding and less grip in the next corner.

Verstappen was on rails through the first sector in qualifying and, along with his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase, again used a target as motivation to extract the maximum performance from his car.

"[Liambiase] told me a 1:28 would be nice," Verstappen explained. "I said, 'don't worry, I'm going send it!' He was like, "yeah, but don't shunt the car, right?'

"Of course it was on the limit but it felt in control and that, I think, is very nice when the car just does exactly what you want it to do. So yeah, just really, really enjoyable."

Verstappen's Japanese Grand Prix weekend was a reality check to any rivals who, on the basis of the race in Singapore a week earlier, thought Red Bull might be catchable before the end of the year. For everyone else it was a reminder of just how good Verstappen is when he has something to chase.

"Max is absolutely at the top of the game, he is the best driver in F1 at this point in time," Horner added. "Everything has to come together car, driver, team in total harmony.

"He has this inner hunger and determination and huge ability, but he channels it and he does not get distracted by some of the trappings of F1, he is an out and out racer.

"If he's not racing in the real world, he's racing in the virtual world. That's his passion, that's what he wants to do."