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Winner of the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday ahead of Sergio Perez, Max Verstappen quietly resumed his march towards the title, as before. But behind Red Bull, Ferrari has become the second force on the grid.

The concept was invented by Heraclitus, developed by Nietzsche, and applied to the letter by Max Verstappen, even if we’re not sure whether the Dutchman is a follower of the pre-Socratic philosophers or Nietzschean thought. The concept is that of eternal return. And the champion’s demonstration erased the southern dream of Melbourne, where the Ferraris had taken advantage of the retirement of the number 1 Red Bull to take the lead.

Formula 1 was back to its dreary self at Suzuka. Whether the cherry blossoms are in bloom or the typhoons are threatening, whether it’s October or April, Verstappen is unstoppable on the Honda track. With no mechanical worries, he took off, cruised and easily won on Sunday. End of story. The RB20 remains in the hands of the unbeatable Dutch master… for now. His teammate Checo Perez, whose contract is up for renewal, was much more at his best than in Australia, taking only a modest win (a dozen seconds all the same).

Behind the scenes, however, this Grand Prix revealed a new balance of power that could be seen throughout the 2024 season.

Ferrari in top form

Even if the cautious Ferrari boss doesn’t want to look any further ahead than his return flight to Europe, it’s now clear that Ferrari has become the second force on the grid. Sunday’s demonstration by the troops from Maranello was impressive, whether in terms of the strategies employed (different for its two drivers) or rubber management during the race. Charles Leclerc, for example, spent his entire race managing his tires, whether medium or hard, with just one stop, enabling him to move up from 8th on the grid to 4th at the finish.

All that remains is to erase the Italian team’s weakness, its strength from last year: qualifying—especially for Leclerc. “I think this is the first time in my career that I’m going to have to look at my Saturdays,” he admits with a slightly yellow smile. “But when I’m working, things normally work fast.” One exercise in particular that the SF-24 will need to work on is tire warm-up.

In the space of six months, the yellow single-seater has taken a step backwards. The fault lies with those pesky Ferraris, who have stepped up their game on the fast circuits that used to be the strength of Woking’s single-seaters. Andrea Stella’s men played the game perfectly, however, using an unfortunate Oscar Piastri as a stopper to try and slow Carlos Sainz and save Norris’s podium. In vain, the MCL 38 lacked a little of the pace of its red rival. The fact remains that Lando Norris and Piastri are serious podium contenders behind the Scuderia drivers.

A year ago, the start of the season was colored green. In the hands of a reborn Fernando Alonso, the Aston Martin shone alongside the Red Bulls, and the Spaniard had become a regular on the podium. Now he’s back in the fold. The 2024 car is far less impressive than last year. Even with a driver like the two-time world champion, it’s hard to shine, especially as his team-mate Lance Stroll, on the other side of the garage, is suffering more and more from the comparison (especially in qualifying).

Nevertheless, the fearsome or Machiavellian Bull from Asturias once again used all his racing savvy to preserve sixth place by offering his DRS to young Australian Oscar Piastri, who was celebrating his birthday on Saturday, to prevent George Russell from catching up.

As with Red Bull, which crushes everything, weekend after weekend, Mercedes’ speeches follow one another without any performance to justify the pious speeches. The Brackley engineers continue to drown in their figures, unable to understand why their computers tell them that the W15 has support, while the lap times send them into the background, or rather, into the sad anonymity of the minnows.

Even on Sunday, boss Toto Wolff was keen to put a positive spin on things. “Our first stint was bad because we tried to make only one stop and our drivers had to preserve their rubber,” he explained. “When we decided to push at the end of the race, we were clearly on the pace.” Not enough to avoid the humiliation for the unfortunate Hamilton of being overtaken at the tricky 130 R by Verstappen and Perez.

A fortnight from now in China, on a track that will be unknown to everyone, with asphalt as green as the waterlogged rice paddies of Suzuka, the result is still likely to be the same, as Nietzsche hoped, even if he had never seen a Red Bull drive. Even the sprint race, the first of the year, may not be enough to get the wheels turning. Not yet. “We have to keep pushing,” Ferrari boss Frédéric Vasseur insisted at the finish. “As soon as we put pressure on them, they’re likely to make mistakes. And we’ll be there.”

This article was originally written for L’Équipe by Fréderic Ferret