Hamilton expects 'phenomenal' Red Bull to win in Japan
BBC Sport -

Lewis Hamilton will be convinced "something's up" if Red Bull are not back at their normal level at this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.

Red Bull failed to win for the first time all year last weekend in Singapore, where Carlos Sainz triumphed for Ferrari.

Hamilton said: "I would think if they are not 30 seconds ahead like they have been in the past then something's up.

"It was a difficult weekend, the last one, but their car should be phenomenal here. They have been phenomenal all year."

Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who finished fifth in Singapore, believes his team will face a challenge from McLaren at the demanding, high-speed Suzuka circuit, a favourite with all the drivers.

"It should be a good track for us," Verstappen said, "but McLaren have been making great gains and they are normally quite good in the high-speed as well. So they can be quite strong here, I think."

Asked whether he thought McLaren could challenge Red Bull in Japan, championship leader Verstappen said: "Yeah, I think so."

He added: "I definitely see them very competitive."

Verstappen praised the progress McLaren have made since starting the season with one of the slowest cars on the grid.

"It is quite impressive to see where they started and where they are now," he said.

Mercedes driver George Russell said he also expected McLaren to be strong, because of the abundance of high-speed corners at Suzuka, similar to those where the team proved competitive at the British Grand Prix.

Russell said McLaren's Lando Norris was "favourite" to win "a close fight" between McLaren, Mercedes and Ferrari for best of the rest.

"If you look at Silverstone, in the 230km/h region corners they were exceptionally quick," Russell said. "They were 0.2-0.25secs quicker than the majority of the field in each of those corners, 0.1secs quicker than Red Bull."

Russell also echoed and amplified Hamilton's comments about Red Bull's competitiveness.

"I expect Lando to be next best and then it depends on Red Bull," Russell said. "I think [Singapore] was purely a one-off. I expect them to be back to their winning ways or at least to the top of the field, but if they're not that will be a lot of question marks being raised if they have another weekend like last week, but I don't expect it."

Russell - and apparently Hamilton - were alluding to a rule clarification that was issued before the Singapore Grand Prix restricting the use of flexible bodywork and floors.

There was speculation in Singapore among the teams that Red Bull's drop in performance could have been caused by this change, which targets the use of aero-elasticity of parts to enhance performance.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has insisted the team changed "nothing" on their car as a result of the clarification.

Piastri praised by McLaren after new contract

McLaren are the centre of attention for another reason this weekend - they announced on Wednesday before the teams had arrived in Suzuka that they had secured their rookie Australian driver Oscar Piastri until the end of 2026.

Piastri was already under contract until the end of next season.

On Thursday, team principal Andrea Stella said McLaren had decided "very early" into Piastri's debut season that they wanted to secure his services for longer.

Stella likened the 22-year-old to both Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher, multiple champions who the Italian has worked with in the past.

He said Piastri's "attitude to continuous improvement" was similar to Alonso, and "the values he brings into the collaboration with the team, in this sense makes me think about Michael".

"Natural talent, attitude, and culture and values - these three things became apparent to us relatively soon, and that's why the [contract extension] conversation started soon," Stella said.

He said Piastri's "calm, considerate" personality was also a bonus.

"When you are in a pressurised environment, like Formula 1, it becomes very important," Stella said.

"He doesn't have nervous reactions. He doesn't have unnecessary irritation.

"He's calm, he's very considerate with his words, he's very considered with the way he presents himself. And he's a totally trustworthy person, he's somebody you know you can trust."

Norris said of his team-mate: "He's performed and done everything he's needed to and exceeded most people's expectations. He's pushed me a lot. It's not a nice thing. It's not what I want, but he's done a very good job."

British driver Norris, 23, is under contract to McLaren until 2025 and has attracted interest from teams including Ferrari, Red Bull and Aston Martin.

Norris said: "I have always said I want to win with McLaren and we are getting closer and closer to achieving that. Not just to win races but championship. I want to do it at McLaren.

"I am very happy there, if I spend 10-15 years there it is something I would look forward to.

"I am very much concentrated on this year and next year to 2025. It's two and half years to try and progress. Things [about the future come up] every now and then but nothing more than that."

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