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Verstappen Hopes to Use Japan’s High-Speed Suzuka Circuit to Reassert His Dominance in Formula 1

SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Max Verstappen said he found Japan’s Suzuka circuit “intimidating” the first time he navigated a Formula 1 car around the figure-eight layout with its high-speed corners and narrow confines.

No longer daunted by Suzuka, the track looks like an ideal bounce-back destination for Verstappen. In the last F1 race two weeks ago in Australia, a fire on his right-rear brakes forced him out on the fourth lap — ending a nine-race victory string.

“I think if you look at Melbourne performance-wise, I think we were quick, but we didn’t finish the race,” Verstappen said. “So that’s not ideal, but our car normally likes the higher-speed corners, so hopefully we can show that again this weekend.”

That’s what’s expected Sunday from the three-time defending F1 champion.

He was the quickest in Friday’s first practice session. The second session was dampened by a light rain with most teams deciding not to run in the damp to save tire wear. Verstappen was among those sitting out.

Verstappen clocked 1 minute, 30.056 seconds in the first practice, .181 ahead of teammate Sergio Perez and .213 up on Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, winner of the Australian GP .

Verstappen won his second Formula 1 season title at Suzuka in 2022, and he dominated in Japan last season as he won his third straight title.

That race was only six months ago. The Japanese race has been moved to the beginning of the F1 calendar in 2024, dovetailing perfectly with a big weekend in the cherry blossom season across the Japanese archipelago.

Rain is in the forecast for Sunday, a weather condition that often greeted the race when it was run in the fall, or autumn.

Verstappen won this season’s first two races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which has been partly overshadowed by the alleged conduct of team principal Christian Horner toward a team employee.

Verstappen was asked in Japan about his future with Red Bull, amid rumors about a move to Mercedes.

“I’m very happy where I’m at,” he said. “And, yeah, we want to keep it that way.”

“I have a contract with Red Bull until ’28,” he added. “After that, I first want to see if I actually even want to continue.”

Ferrari’s Sainz said closing the gap on Red Bull could be difficult.

“Last year (September) we were, I think, 0.7-0.8 seconds off Red Bull here,” he said. “So it’s time to see where we are this year and see if we can be at least closer.”

Sainz will be replaced next season at Ferrari by Lewis Hamilton, so he’s job hunting. And he missed the second race of the season with an appendicitis operation.

“I stayed in Australia for a week and started going back to the gym,” Sainz said. “Still obviously not lifting heavy numbers like I used to do in the past, but at least I can get my training done and I’m feeling back to 100%.”

Seven-time champion Hamilton — moving to Ferrari next season — went out in Australia with engine failure, and Mercedes teammate George Russell exited in a dangerous crash. Suzuka may not suit Mercedes this time.

“I think there’s a clear trend, where we know our strengths in the car, our weaknesses,” Russell said. “Definitely performing stronger in the low-speed corners, struggling a bit in the high-speed corners, of which there’s more of it in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), more in Melbourne, more in Suzuka.”

Japanese driver Ayumu Iwasa drove the first practice session for the RB team, hoping to eventually land a full-time ride. Japanese drivers have had limited success in F1, although Takuma Sato did win the Indy 500 twice after struggling in F1.

F1’s lone American driver Logan Sargeant crashed heavily in Friday’s first practice session in what he called “a bit of a silly mistake.”

Williams team principal James Vowles said there was “pretty significant” damage to Sargeant’s car.

“The chassis is OK, fortunately, but I would say pretty much everything else isn’t; suspension all around, gearbox cracked,” Vowles said. “Big damage.”

Sargeant missed the second practice Friday while Williams made repairs, but the team’s head of vehicle performance, Dave Robson, said Sargeant “will be back in action” for third practice and qualifying Saturday.

Sargeant was pulled out of the Australia GP two weeks ago. Teammate Albon crashed in that practice and, without a spare chassis, Albon was given Sargeant’s car to drive in the Melbourne race.

Vowles said Sargeant seemed ready on Friday to assert himself.

“Obviously he was in a very good state of mind this week and last night again when I called him,” Vowles said. “Really, really strong state of mind. He just wanted to get back into the car and get going but not with the intention of proving to the world he deserves a seat.”

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By STEPHEN WADE AP Sports Writer

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