Max Verstappen believes he needs a "perfect race" to secure victory at the Japanese Grand Prix and with it a second successive Formula One world title, despite qualifying on pole.

Verstappen holds a 96-point lead in the drivers' championship as what once looked like being a fascinating battle with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc has instead turned into a procession.

The Red Bull driver's retention of the title he wrested from Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton last season is now an inevitability.

It is matter of when and not if Verstappen wins the drivers' championship, and he put himself in the box seat to do it at Suzuka by claiming pole for a race being held for the first time since 2019, the coronavirus pandemic having seen the 2020 and 2021 races cancelled.

He set a time of one minute and 29.304 seconds and avoided a grid penalty following an investigation into a Q3 near-miss with McLaren's Lando Norris.

But Verstappen refuses to get complacent even with a second title in touching distance. A win and the fastest lap bonus point will seal the championship and Verstappen would also clinch it if he wins without the fastest lap and Leclerc finishes lower than second.

"I'm not thinking about it too much. What was most important was we had a competitive car," said Verstappen. 

"We had that in qualifying and I hope it will be the same in the race because we do need a perfect race to win it. But at least it is a good start."

The weather could dampen Verstappen's hopes of a title party on Sunday, with rain forecast at the end of a weekend that saw Friday's running in practice washed out.

"We're going a little bit into the unknown," said Leclerc as he looks to extend the one-sided title fight to the United States Grand Prix after finishing 0.010 seconds behind Verstappen.

"But it looks like the conditions are also a little bit unpredictable. We don't really know whether it is going to rain or not, or maybe both. We will see."

While the conditions may be tough to judge, it is fair to say Mercedes are unlikely to compete for the win unless inclement weather arrives.

Hamilton qualified sixth while George Russell was down in eighth, the latter over a second off Verstappen's pace.

"The Red Bull is still quicker on the straight with no DRS than we are with DRS," Hamilton said. 

"Rain opens up more opportunity. It could be not the most exciting race if it's dry, at least not for us."

Daniel Ricciardo has conceded he does not expect to have a place on the Formula One grid next year following the latest announcements in the paddock.

The Australian will leave McLaren at the end of this season and will be replaced by Oscar Piastri.

An opening on the grid at Alpine, where Ricciardo previously raced while the team was under the Renault mantle, has closed following confirmation of Pierre Gasly's deal – with his place at AlphaTauri being taken by Nyck de Vries.

That leaves only positions at Williams and Haas available for 2023 and Ricciardo believes there could be better options available the following year.

"Yeah, to be honest, the Gasly news I was aware of, I knew they were talking for a while and I knew though they were very interested in Pierre," he told ESPN.

"Let's say I was prepared for that and no surprise, so we were trying to, let's say navigate, our way around that and figure out what was next.

"But I think the reality is now I won't be on the grid in 2023, I think it's now just trying to set up for 2024.

"I think that there could be some better opportunities then so that's really what all this confirms and now where the sights are set."

Ricciardo has been linked with reserve driver roles for 2023, including at Mercedes, and has previously made it clear he intends to remain in F1 and will not seek an entry into a different motorsport series.

Max Verstappen was reprimanded following a stewards' enquiry after an incident involving Lando Norris, but will remain in pole position for this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.

The Red Bull driver boosted his chances of wrapping up a second successive world title with four races to spare after claiming his fifth pole of the campaign in Suzuka.

However, Verstappen had to wait for confirmation that he had avoided a grid penalty after stewards reviewed a near-miss between the reigning world champion and McLaren driver Norris during the early stages of Q3.

As both drivers conducted out-laps, Norris rounded 130R to begin a push lap, but was forced onto the grass to avoid a collision after Verstappen suddenly darted to the left under acceleration.

The stewards' report read: "The driver of car one (Verstappen) was aware of car 55 (Sainz) in front and car four (Norris) approaching from behind and decided to accelerate at precisely the same time as car four decided to overtake car one.

"Unfortunately, due to lack of tyre temperature on car one, the driver temporarily lost control of the car causing it to 'snap' anti-clockwise.

"The driver of car four stated that this was simply an unfortunate incident, however it is the driver's responsibility to at all times maintain control of their car.

"Regarding penalty, all previous breaches of this nature have resulted in a reprimand, hence a similar penalty is imposed in this case."

Verstappen said of the incident: "We were all on our out-lap – all lining up to try and create a gap to everyone – and somehow he still wanted to get me into the chicane.

"I was at the point of accelerating, but I was on very cold tyres, so I had a little moment and that’s why he had to drive around me.

"If you are just a bit more respectful, then everyone is anyway already lining up. I don't think anyone is trying to pass into that last chicane, so basically, by trying to pass me, you create that kind of problem."

Max Verstappen was delighted as he boosted his chances of sealing the Formula One World Championship this weekend after taking pole at the Japanese Grand Prix, although he will await the result of a stewards' investigation. 

The Red Bull driver claimed his fifth pole of the season after edging out Charles Leclerc by just 0.010 seconds, while the latter's Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz completed the top three.

Stewards will be investigating an incident involving Verstappen and Lando Norris during the early stages of Q3, with the McLaren driver forced onto the grass to avoid contact on the slow lap after the reigning world champion darted left under acceleration at the exit of 130R.

The Dutchman's time of 1:29.304s eventually proved enough as he increased his chances of wrapping up a second successive title this weekend in Suzuka, where F1 returns for the first time since 2019.

Leclerc and Sainz fell narrowly short in their quests to surpass Verstappen, who revealed his excitement at being back in Japan.

"It was pretty incredible to drive here again, especially in qualifying when you are on low fuel – these cars really come alive through the first sector," Verstappen said.

"Of course, [I'm] very happy to be on pole, but also in general just super happy to be back here.

"It will be interesting first of all to see [what happens with] the weather [on race day]. Some say it will be dry, some say it will be raining at some point during the race. I'm quite confident we have a good car, so [I'm] excited for tomorrow."

Leclerc added: "It's a very tricky lap round here. If you are fast in the first sector, you miss out in the final sector. It's so close with everyone, so we'll try to have a good race from there."

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:29.304
2. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.010s
3. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.057s
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.405s
5. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +0.861s
6. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.957s
7. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.018s
8. George Russell (Mercedes) +1.085s
9. Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +1.250s
10. Lando Norris (McLaren Mercedes) +1.699s

Pierre Gasly is heading to Alpine next season to begin a new multi-year contract after being granted an early release from his 2023 commitment to current team AlphaTauri.

Gasly, 26, has one win on his resume back at the Italian Grand Prix in 2020, and tallied 185 points across the 2020 and 2021 seasons before taking a small step back this year with AlphaTauri struggling.

The Frenchman is currently 13th in the point standings this season – four spots ahead of teammate Yuki Tsunoda – and he will join his fellow countryman Esteban Ocon in a much more competitive Alpine car.

In a statement after the announcement on Friday, Gasly spoke of his excitement at the new opportunity and thanked Red Bull after a nine-year relationship came to an end.

"I am delighted to join the Alpine family and begin this new chapter in my Formula 1 career," he said.

"Driving for a team that has French roots is something very special. I know the strengths of Alpine having raced against them over the past couple of years and, clearly, their progress and ambition is very impressive.

"I wish to thank Red Bull as this marks the end of our nine-year journey together. It is thanks to their trust and support that I became a Formula 1 driver, and what we’ve achieved with Scuderia AlphaTauri over the last years has been very special.

"Looking ahead, I want to give the maximum and utilise all my experience to fight for podiums and ultimately contribute to Alpine’s fight for championships in the future."

Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer called Gasly "a proven talent" and said he believes he is the right man to help lead a new era for the brand.

"I’m very happy that Pierre will be joining the team for 2023 and beyond," he said.

"He is already a proven talent within Formula 1, and we are looking forward to harnessing that within the team. Our team has several objectives for the coming seasons and I firmly believe our driver line-up is a great reflection of the team’s high ambitions.

"I trust Pierre and Esteban can, together, motivate the team to continue its progress towards these goals. We would also like to thank Red Bull for agreeing the terms to allow Pierre to take this step."

CEO Luca de Meo of the Renault Group, who own the Alpine team added that it is a big moment for a French team to secure the services of two of France's top drivers.

"We are proud to present an all-French driver line-up from 2023," he said. "Our roots are in France, and Alpine was born in Normandy, so this is a serendipity of sorts. 

"Both will drive the team and the group forward and, I hope, we can become a symbol of pride for France."

Pierre Gasly is heading to Alpine next season to begin a new three-year contract after being granted an early release from his 2023 commitment to current team AlphaTauri.

Gasly, 26, has one win on his resume back at the Italian Grand Prix in 2020, and tallied 185 points across the 2020 and 2021 seasons before taking a small step back this year with AlphaTauri struggling.

The Frenchman is currently 13th in the point standings this season – four spots ahead of teammate Yuki Tsunoda – and he will join his fellow countryman Esteban Ocon in a much more competitive Alpine car.

In a statement after the announcement on Friday, Gasly spoke of his excitement at the new opportunity and thanked Red Bull after a nine-year relationship came to an end.

"I am delighted to join the Alpine family and begin this new chapter in my Formula 1 career," he said.

"Driving for a team that has French roots is something very special. I know the strengths of Alpine having raced against them over the past couple of years and, clearly, their progress and ambition is very impressive.

"I wish to thank Red Bull as this marks the end of our nine-year journey together. It is thanks to their trust and support that I became a Formula 1 driver, and what we’ve achieved with Scuderia AlphaTauri over the last years has been very special.

"Looking ahead, I want to give the maximum and utilise all my experience to fight for podiums and ultimately contribute to Alpine’s fight for championships in the future."

Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer called Gasly "a proven talent" and said he believes he is the right man to help lead a new era for the brand.

"I’m very happy that Pierre will be joining the team for 2023 and beyond," he said.

"He is already a proven talent within Formula 1, and we are looking forward to harnessing that within the team. Our team has several objectives for the coming seasons and I firmly believe our driver line-up is a great reflection of the team’s high ambitions.

"I trust Pierre and Esteban can, together, motivate the team to continue its progress towards these goals. We would also like to thank Red Bull for agreeing the terms to allow Pierre to take this step."

CEO Luca de Meo of the Renault Group, who own the Alpine team added that it is a big moment for a French team to secure the services of two of France's top drivers.

"We are proud to present an all-French driver line-up from 2023," he said. "Our roots are in France, and Alpine was born in Normandy, so this is a serendipity of sorts. 

"Both will drive the team and the group forward and, I hope, we can become a symbol of pride for France."

Mercedes openly accepted the presence of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell at the top of Friday's Japanese Grand Prix practice time sheets was misleading.

Ahead of a weekend that could see Red Bull's Max Verstappen clinch a second successive title in the drivers' championship, it was the Mercedes pair who had the fastest cars on the track in wet conditions.

Their pace could to some extent be attributed to Mercedes' decision to allow both to use new tyre sets, however, as other teams equipped their cars with used sets, giving the Silver Arrows an advantage.

Russell had been 18th quickest in first practice, and Hamilton 13th, but in the later session it was Russell who set the fastest lap of one minute and 41.935 seconds, with Hamilton just 0.235 seconds behind him.

Verstappen was third on the time sheets, some 0.851secs adrift, just ahead of his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.

Andrew Shovlin, the Mercedes track-side engineering director, said there were grounds for cautious optimism, while acknowledging the team had not suddenly taken a giant leap ahead of their rivals.

"The time sheets are not a fair reflection of pace as our times were set on new tyres," Shovlin said. "But, like for like, we seemed to be in a reasonable position compared to Red Bull and Ferrari. We are expecting a dry qualifying session and most likely a dry race."

Ahead of Saturday's qualifying, Hamilton said: "Looking to tomorrow, I don't really know what to expect. I guess Ferrari and Red Bull will be rapid, and I hope that we are fast too – like I do each week!"

Russell said it was hard to predict how the Mercedes cars would contend over the weekend.

Quoted on the team's website, Russell said: "It is always nice to end the day top of the time sheets, and it was a decent improvement from FP1 when we were pretty much at the bottom.

"The wet conditions today were probably not that representative for the rest of the weekend, but it was a good learning opportunity for the future; it's important to understand things like the tyre crossover from wet to intermediate, and even if that doesn't pay dividends this weekend, it will in the future.

"I've no idea what to expect tomorrow in the dry – we will be battling for the top six positions, and hopefully we have a shot at something better than that. Let's wait and see."

Lewis Hamilton has urged the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) to take action against any team in the event of the budget cap being breached.

Formula One's governing body was due to issue their publication on the 2021 budget cap on Wednesday before announcing a delay, with the outcome now to be shared on October 10.

Widespread reports have suggested that there are two teams guilty of exceeding the cap last season, with speculation mounting one of them is Red Bull, and Mercedes star Hamilton wants the FIA to take firm action against any guilty parties.

"I like to think that if it's being delayed, it's because it's being taken very seriously. It would be bad for the sport if action wasn't taken if there was a breach," he told reporters.

"It is imperative, for transparency, [that punishments are handed out]. We need to continue to have transparency for the fans and the integrity of the sport.

"I know there are a lot of conversations in the background. No one truly knows. There are different numbers and things being said here and there."

Max Verstappen wants to seal the Formula One drivers' title in style with "a perfect weekend" at the Japanese Grand Prix, and he says Red Bull need that.

The reigning champion trailed in seventh last week in Singapore after what he described as "a very messy weekend" and "a prime example of how you don't want a weekend to go".

He had previously won five straight races and recorded 11 victories in 2022, but Verstappen struggled on a soaked Marina Bay Street Circuit.

Still, his lead over second-placed Charles Leclerc in the championship is a commanding 104 points, and that means Verstappen has an opportunity to wrap up the title with four races to spare. Only Michael Schumacher in 2002 (six races to spare) and Nigel Mansell in 1995 (five) have been crowned champion sooner in a season.

Verstappen said Red Bull's close relationship with engine builder Honda, a Japanese firm, would make winning the title this weekend "a little bit extra special".

The Japan race was scrubbed from last year's calendar because of the COVID-19 situation, which Verstappen said was "a shame".

"So that's why we're really looking forward to being back here and then we'll see what happens. We need a perfect weekend, that's for sure," said the 25-year-old.

"It would be very nice if it happens here, but if it doesn't happen here, I will be even more in favour the next race."

Verstappen's second consecutive title is practically a formality at this stage, and if he wins and posts the fastest lap this weekend then he is assured of being champion.

Twelve F1 champions have been crowned after results in the Japanese Grand Prix, with Sebastian Vettel in 2011 the most recent driver to clinch the title at Suzuka.

Verstappen is trying to brush off the importance of the race, saying on Formula1.com: "It doesn't really change anything; you want to have a good weekend and try to maximise everything you can, and of course I need a perfect weekend to be able to clinch the title here but, to be honest, I'm not really thinking about it too much."

The Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) has delayed its decision over potential Formula One budget cap breaches by Red Bull and Aston Martin until October 10.

F1's governing body, which had been expected to release its Certificates of Compliance for the 2021 season on Wednesday, has made a five-day postponement to its decision amid ongoing furore.

Red Bull, whose driver Max Verstappen won the Drivers' World Championship in a controversial finale last year, are one of two teams alleged by rivals to have breached the competition's fiscal limits.

Principal Christian Horner has reiterated confidence in his team and threatened his counterpart at Mercedes, Toto Wolff, with legal action over his claims.

But the wait to discover just whether Red Bull committed a breach will now last until next week.

"The FIA informs that the conclusion of the analysis of the 2021 financial submissions of the Formula One teams and the subsequent release of Certificates of Compliance to the Financial Regulations will not take place on Wednesday, 5 October," the organisation stated.

"The analysis of financial submissions is a long and complex process that is ongoing and will be concluded to enable the release of the Certificates on Monday, 10 October.

"The Financial Regulations were agreed unanimously by all Competitors, who have worked positively and collaboratively with the FIA Cost Cap Administration throughout this first year under the Financial Regulations.

"As previously communicated, there has been significant and unsubstantiated speculation and conjecture in relation to this matter, and the FIA reiterates that until it is finalised, no further information will be provided.

"The FIA also reiterates that any suggestion that FIA personnel have disclosed sensitive information is equally baseless."

Punishment is likely to follow if Red Bull are deemed to have committed a breach, though the extent of whether it would strip Verstappen of his maiden world title is unknown.

Victory and the fastest lap for Max Verstappen in Japan on Sunday will seal the Formula One title for the Red Bull ace and continue a record in the land of the rising sun.

The Japanese Grand Prix has been the venue where championship winners have been crowned the most, happening on 12 occasions – the last of which was Sebastian Vettel for Red Bull in 2011.

Verstappen, who will also win the title if Charles Leclerc finishes third or lower and team-mate Sergio Perez finishes second or lower without the fastest lap, can clinch the title with four races to spare – only Michael Schumacher in 2002 (6) and Nigel Mansell in 1995 (5) have been crowned champion sooner in the season.

A further honour also awaits Verstappen in Japan, where a win would be the 23rd different venue where he has topped the podium, surpassing Schumacher (22) and behind only Lewis Hamilton (31).

Regardless of Verstappen's exploits in Japan, the title is a near certainty to be heading his way and it would require a remarkable sequence of events for the situation to change.

The budget cap situation is the biggest threat, with the FIA set to announce results for the 2021 season on Wednesday, although any outcome is unlikely to be final and arguments are expected to rumble on within the paddock.

Leclerc's pole problem

Charles Leclerc has taken pole position and failed to win the race on seven occasions in 2022, the most recent coming in Singapore last weekend where Sergio Perez won ahead of the Ferrari driver.

Another pole without a win in 2022 would equal the highest tally in a single season, set by Mika Hakkinen in 1999 and Nico Rosberg in 2014.

Alonso waits for record

Fernando Alonso set the record for most Grand Prix stats in F1 last weekend (350) but is still waiting to take the record for the most F1 finishes – missing the opportunity to set the record in the last two races.

Alonso is tied with Kimi Raikkonen for the most races finished (378) and has suffered back-to-back DNF's in Italy and Singapore, with Lewis Hamilton (276 finishes) now threatening to leapfrog him if that trend continues.

During a dramatic weekend of racing, Jamaica’s Fraser McConnell overcame a significant challenge on Saturday to finish third on Sunday in the Group E final at the Nitro Rallycross Minneapolis.

Lewis Hamilton feels he can continue in Formula One for another five years, according to Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who is certain the 37-year-old will renew his contract with the team.

Hamilton has won six of his joint-record seven F1 world championships while representing Mercedes, also helping the Silver Arrows to eight consecutive constructors' titles since joining in 2013.

That run is set to end this season, with Mercedes in third and Hamilton winless and struggling in sixth in the drivers' standings.

But Wolff insists his superstar's appetite for the sport remains undiminished.

He believes Hamilton – who he described as "the greatest personality" in F1 history – is sure to extend his Mercedes stay beyond the expiration of his contract in 2023.

"The advantage is we speak a lot together," Wolff told Channel 4. "Just last week we sat down, and he says 'look, I have another five years in me, how do you see that?'

"He's the shining star on and off track. I think we would lose the greatest personality that Formula One ever had.

"Over time we have just grown together. We are totally transparent with each other. 

"Lewis will be the first one to say 'I can't do this anymore, because I feel I haven't got the reactions anymore' or 'I've just lost fun doing it, and there is another generation growing up that is just very strong'.

"I have no doubt that whatever we agree on a contract extension – which is going to happen – that we both are always going to discuss, very openly, what the future holds."

Hamilton indicated earlier this year he has "plenty of fuel left in the tank", and Wolff believes he can replicate the longevity of rival Fernando Alonso and NFL legend Tom Brady by competing after his 40th birthday.

"I don't know if 40 is that age where you say that is not adequate anymore for a racing driver," Wolff said.

"If you look at where Fernando is with 41 years, he's still very much there. Now, is he the same Fernando that he was at 25? I don't know, but he's very competitive still.

"You look at Tom Brady, who is somebody I really admire for having the discipline in how he manages his life and his sport, he's 45 – and he's on the pitch.

"So Lewis, with the way he leads his life, with the full, ultra-narrow focus on his Formula One racing – all the other things are just hobbies – I think he can take it quite far."

Hamilton was joined by George Russell at Mercedes ahead of this season, and the former Williams driver sits fourth in the drivers' standings after recording seven podium finishes in 2022 – one more than Hamilton.

Wolff believes Russell will have the opportunity to compete for titles in the future, adding: "George has been great joining the team.

"He's a good personality, he acts with integrity, he's very transparent working with Lewis – these two really have added to the team's development slope this year.

"He was obviously hoping to be in a Mercedes and winning races and championships, which he got that timing wrong, but at least he has progressed to the midfield now.

"That time is going to come – he will win races, he will race for championships, and I think he absolutely has it in him. I feel very good to have him in the team over the long term."

Fernando Alonso says he has lost "about 60" points due to mechanical issues across the Formula One season, describing Alpine's problems as "unacceptable" after retiring from the Singapore Grand Prix.

Alpine suffered their first double retirement of the 2022 campaign on Sunday, as suspected power unit issues ended the races of Alonso and team-mate Esteban Ocon.

Alonso was defending sixth place against the advances of Max Verstappen when the problem first struck, forcing him out of the race after 21 laps. Ocon, meanwhile, followed six laps later.

The issue overshadowed a landmark day for Alonso, who made a record 351st grand prix start, and the Spaniard made his frustration known after the race.

"Again eight or 10 points are gone and there were already about 50 points lost this year," Alonso said. "So there are already about 60, which is unacceptable.

"I am very upset because there had been a good performance in this race on my part throughout the weekend.

"Yes, it was the two [Alpine] cars, but one was behind and out of the points, and it was not as serious as in my case for the points.

"This year, this changes everything. If you gave me 60 more points in the standings and reduced those of the rest – because they are points that the others would not have added – my championship would seem much better, even compared to Mercedes."

Alonso has retired from four of his 17 races in 2022, including back-to-back outings at Monza and Singapore. 

The two-time world champion, who is set to replace the retiring Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin next year, sits ninth in the drivers' championship standings, seven points behind team-mate Ocon.

Sergio Perez's Singapore Grand Prix victory was confirmed after an FIA investigation into an infringement involving safety cars only resulted in a five-second time penalty for the Mexican.

Perez overtook Charles Leclerc on the first corner of Sunday's race at the wet Marina Bay Street Circuit, protecting his lead throughout to claim a second win of the season and fourth of his career.

Numerous safety cars were deployed throughout the eventful race in slippery conditions, with an investigation opened by the stewards into a misdemeanour by Perez when racing under a yellow flag.

Ferrari called for two five-second time penalties on Perez, who finished seven seconds ahead of Leclerc, for not keeping within 10 car lengths of the safety car.

Both the Red Bull driver and Leclerc were called to the stewards' office for their version of events after the race, with Perez also investigated for pulling alongside the safety car to encourage it to speed up.

Formula One's governing body, the FIA, reprimanded Perez for the first incident and gave him a five-second penalty for the second infringement, leaving the Red Bull racer two seconds ahead of Leclerc.

"Although the track was wet in parts, we do not accept that the conditions were such as to make it impossible or dangerous for Perez to have maintained the required less than 10 car length gap," the stewards said. 

"Nevertheless, we took into account the wet conditions and the difficulties highlighted by Perez as mitigatory circumstances for this incident and, accordingly, determine that a reprimand ought to be imposed.

"As this was the second breach of Article 55.10 by Perez during the race and followed an express warning from the race director, we determined to impose a five-second time penalty on Perez."

That leaves Perez trailing championship leader Max Verstappen by 106 points, with Leclerc in second as he sits 104 points behind the Dutchman.

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