Motor racing-Verstappen completes Japanese GP practice sweep

Formula One F1 - Japanese Grand Prix - Suzuka Circuit, Suzuka, Japan - September 23, 2023 Red Bull's Max Verstappen in the pits during practice REUTERS/Issei Kato

SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Red Bull's Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen completed a sweep of Japanese Grand Prix practice on Saturday with McLaren closest on the timesheets and emerging as the main challengers.

The Dutch 25-year-old, who was fastest in both Friday sessions as he bounced back from defeat in Singapore last Sunday, lapped the Suzuka circuit with a best time of one minute 30.267 seconds on the soft tyres.

McLaren's Lando Norris was second-fastest, 0.240 off the pace, in the final session before qualifying with Australian team mate Oscar Piastri third.

Red Bull's Sergio Perez was fourth-fastest and a further half a second behind.

Verstappen, who won in Japan from pole position last year, leads Perez by 151 points after 15 of 22 rounds and could wrap up his third title as early as the next race in Qatar.

Red Bull, unbeaten until Singapore ended Verstappen's record run of 10 wins in a row and the team's streak of 15 successive victories dating back to last year, are set to retain their constructors' title at Suzuka.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, who looked Red Bull's closest challengers on Friday, were fifth and sixth, with the Mercedes pairing of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell seventh and eighth.

Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso was ninth fastest with Alfa Romeo's Guanyu Zhou 10th.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London; Editing by William Mallard)

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