Oscar Piastri qualified on the front row for the first time in his F1 career and Lando Norris will start third at Suzuka on Sunday; watch the Japanese GP on Sky Sports F1 from 4.30am Sunday with lights out at 6am to see if McLaren can beat Max Verstappen
Last Updated: 23/09/23 12:38pm
Lando Norris believes McLaren’s turnaround in Formula 1 fortunes over the course of this season has been “exceptional” after they qualified second and third for the Japanese GP – with the Briton and Oscar Piastri now hoping for a fast start against Max Verstappen in Sunday’s race.
While Verstappen left the whole field trailing with the largest pole-winning margin at Suzuka for 20 years on Saturday, McLaren were the one other leading team to take solace from their qualifying form with Piastri and Norris proving the Red Bull driver’s nearest challengers ahead of the Ferrari and Mercedes cars.
The strong result was a world away from the start of the season, when both drivers failed to make the top 10 in Bahrain.
“The jumps we have made in terms of positions are probably more than we had been expecting,” said Norris to Sky Sports F1.
“I don’t think at any point this season we were going like ‘can we get close to qualifying on pole in certain places? ‘Would we have certain podiums so early in the season?’ It would have been a hard no in the beginning of the year.
“But we were very patient. We knew very early on in the year we were not going to be great but we knew some good things were coming.
“To be quicker than Ferrari, quicker than Mercedes, from having a much worse car I think that is what has been so impressive. The team are doing an exceptional job, I think that’s clear from how much we have improved and to be fighting for front rows and things like that. It’s deserved.”
McLaren CEO Zak Brown added: “That was strong. We have been strong all weekend. Oscar and Lando are driving great. They are definitely getting the best out of this car that all the men and women at McLaren have given them.
“It’s pretty fast and we have to keep pushing to see if we can get that Max guy! The team back in the factory that have been designing and building have been pretty confident we would get results.
“But I’ve always been cautiously optimistic and still, from the start of the year, very much one day at a time. You have to give hats off to the team, what a fantastic job they are doing.”
Piastri on front row for first time
On Saturday, it was Piastri’s performance that particularly caught the eye. The Australian rookie marked his first appearance at Suzuka by out-qualifying the highly-rated Norris and taking the first front-row start for a grand prix of his nascent career.
Piastri, whose strong start in F1 earned him a new long-term McLaren contract earlier this week, becomes the fifth driver from his homeland to achieve the front-row feat.
“It’s nice to have that, obviously,” he said in the press conference. There’s not been that many Australians in F1, full stop. It’s of course not a record I’m trying to chase, being the fifth front row from Australia but it’s nice just to have that success, in particular, so early on in my F1 career.
“Some people don’t get this opportunity in their whole career. So for me to have it in my first six or seven months is a privilege. Of course, I want to try and be the next Australian to break some other records or be added to those lists. So, a nice start, but of course, I want to be able to do more.”
Speaking to Sky Sports F1, Piastri explained where McLaren’s 2023 challenger had improved since the troubled early weeks of the season.
“It does everything a little bit better,” he said. “I’d say the strengths and weaknesses are still quite similar, which we are trying to improve and work on, but the most important thing at the moment is making it quicker and however we can achieve that is good. If we can get him off the line, we’ll try!’
The fact that Red Bull are usually even more superior over a race distance than single lap, means both Piastri and Norris were keeping their race-day expectations firmly in check in their interviews after qualifying.
Nonetheless, with two cars directly behind Verstappen for Sunday morning’s race start at 6am – live on Sky Sports F1 – Norris offered up the hope that recent history could repeat itself.
“If we can get him off the line, we’ll try,” said the Briton. “We did a similar thing in Silverstone. The Red Bull is six tenths a lap quicker on a single run and normally the race pace of a Red Bull is even better.
“You never know; at Suzuka many things can happen, they have in the past, and we have two cars to try and get him. But we also have a lot of quick cars behind us.
“We have Perez who is in a lot quicker car than us and Leclerc who is in a similarly-competitive car. So it’s probably going to be a race more with cars behind but we have two cars up there and good pace all weekend, so we can be confident we can have a good one.”
Sky Sports F1’s live Japanese GP schedule
Sunday September 24
- 4.30am: Grand Prix Sunday: Japanese GP build-up*
- 6am: THE JAPANESE GRAND PRIX*
- 8am: Chequered Flag: Japanese GP reaction*
- 9am: Ted’s Notebook
- 9.30am: Japanese GP race replay
- 12pm: Japanese GP highlights
*Also on Sky Sports Main Event
Watch the whole Japanese Grand Prix weekend live on Sky Sports F1. Stream F1 on Sky Sports with NOW. Cancel anytime