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Japanese Grand Prix: Max Verstappen is expected to dominate in Suzuka

Max Verstappen at the Australian Grand Prix
Max Verstappen was forced to retire from March's Australian Grand Prix with a brake fire [Getty Images]

Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka

Dates: 5-7 April

Coverage: Live radio commentary on BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra (BBC Radio 5 Live for Sunday's race) & BBC Sounds, BBC Sport website & app

Ferrari expect Max Verstappen to be the dominant force in this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix despite their one-two in the last race in Australia.

Verstappen failed to win for the first time in 10 races in Melbourne as Carlos Sainz led Charles Leclerc across the line.

But Sainz said he is expecting a "challenging track" in Suzuka.

"Last year [in 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."

Verstappen retired from the Australian Grand Prix on the fourth lap with a brake fire. He had pole position in Melbourne but was passed by Sainz on the second lap as his brakes started to cause trouble.

But the Dutchman dominated the race in Japan last year, setting pole by nearly 0.6 seconds, and winning by nearly 20. This year, the race has been moved to spring from its traditional autumn date.

The three-time champion said: "If you look at Melbourne performance-wise, we were quick, but we didn't finish the race. So that's not ideal, but our car normally likes the higher speed corners, so hopefully that you know we can show that again this weekend."

Most other leading drivers also expect Verstappen to be back in his familiar position at the front of the field in Japan.

Sainz's team-mate Charles Leclerc said: "This track will expose the teams more to high speed and we will understand a bit more where we stand compared to others on those types of corners. For now, I would expect Red Bull to still have the upper hand this weekend."

Mercedes expect their difficult start to the season to continue because their car's biggest weakness has been high-speed corners, which predominate at Suzuka, regarded as perhaps the most challenging and rewarding track for drivers on the calendar.

Lewis Hamilton said it was "unlikely" the team would be able to find a good harmony in their car this weekend given its performance over the season's first three races.

"For us, we have not started the season where we wanted to be," the seven-time champion said.

"We have a long way to go. You have seen how things can switch [around] in certain teams. Anything can happen in this sport. We just have to learn as much as we can and continue to work hard. It is not how you fall, it is how you get up. So we will continue to chase and fight and try to get back to the front."

His team-mate George Russell said: "There's a clear trend, where we know our strengths in the car, our weaknesses. Definitely performing stronger in the low-speed corners, struggling a bit in the high-speed corners, of which there's more of in Jeddah, more of in Melbourne, more of in Suzuka. You know, these are the faster circuits of the season. There's still plenty to understand."

Horner controversy takes a back seat

The controversy surrounding Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was not addressed by the drivers on media day in Japan, after a friend of the woman who registered a complaint of sexual harassment against the 50-year-old spoke to BBC Sport this week. Horner has always denied the claims made against him.

The situation has led to a power struggle inside Red Bull, and Verstappen has so far given equivocal answers whenever asked whether Horner has his full backing.

It remains a possibility, albeit a distant one, that Verstappen - who has a contract with Red Bull until 2028 - could end up leaving Red Bull at the end of this season in the fallout from Horner's situation.

But on Thursday, Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso, who has been linked to a move to Red Bull whether or not Verstappen leaves, said he thought there was "zero chance" of the three-time champion moving on.

Asked whether that was accurate - and what factors would define his plans for 2025 - Verstappen said: "No, it all depends on if I want to also drive next year or not, you know. But from my side, no, I'm very happy where I'm at. And, yeah, we want to keep it that way."

Alonso penalty debate

Alonso was the subject of discussion after receiving a 20-second penalty for "potentially dangerous driving" after he slowed on the straight and then accelerated again on the final lap of the race in Australia, actions that led to Russell crashing heavily.

The Aston Martin driver said he was "a little surprised by the penalty", adding: "It will not change much on how we drive. There is no obligation to drive 57 laps in the same way."

Russell said he felt a penalty was the correct decision.

"If it were not to have been penalised," he said, "it would have really opened a can of worms for the rest of the season - and in junior categories - of saying, you know, are you allowed to brake in a straight? Are you allowed to slow down, change gear, accelerate, do something semi-erratic?

"I don't take anything personally with what happened with Fernando. And it probably had bigger consequences than it should have."

But Lando Norris disagreed, saying penalising Alonso was the wrong decision.

"What Fernando did was odd, so extreme, but don't think it's even close to being regarded as a brake test," the McLaren driver said.

"Should it be a penalty? No. George had time to see what was going on. This was not a 'brake test'. This was just trying to play very smart, Fernando being Fernando, and [Russell] kind of being caught out by it.

"It was not aggressive. It was not one metre in front of a car stopping. [It was] 100m ahead, and the approaching speed caught George off.

"George didn't have to do anything other than brake five metres earlier and nothing would have happened. I will have many questions ready for the drivers' briefing."

Verstappen said he, too, would discuss the situation in the drivers' briefing, which takes place after practice on Friday.