Max Verstappen says the Red Bull is an enjoyable car to drive again after finishing Friday practice in top spot at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Red Bull struggled in Singapore, where not only did its win streak end but Verstappen was only able to finish fifth behind both Ferraris, Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton. The team insisted it was a track-specific issue, and Verstappen backed that up at Suzuka by lapping 0.6s clear of the field in FP1 and over 0.3s ahead of Charles Leclerc in FP2.

“It felt really good today,” Verstappen said. “From lap one, the car was enjoyable to drive again. It seems like we had a strong day on short runs, long runs. There’s a lot of degradation on this track, so it will be quite tough I think on tires in the race. But so far, I think we have a good start to the weekend.

“It looks like it’s all a bit tight behind me — Ferrari, McLaren are close. We’ll have a look. But I think at the end of the day, we just focus on ourselves and try to optimize our performance, and if we do that, I’m confident that we’ll fight for pole here.”

Teammate Sergio Perez was a second off the pace down in ninth place, but says experiments that Red Bull was doing with its setup in FP1 clouded his final position.

“Very interesting,” Perez said. “I think this morning, we were a bit off balance on our side, and I think we had some very good understanding of the direction we need to take. Certainly things are looking a lot better than they did last weekend, which is positive. I look forward to (trying to) qualify well tomorrow, because degradation seems to be quite high around this place, especially with the temperatures we’re expecting.

“I do believe that we’re going to be strong tomorrow, and also on Sunday.”

While Ferrari was second fastest in each session, Norris was third and says the performance was encouraging for McLaren even if the car’s handling wasn’t.

“The pace has been pretty good today, probably one of the closest times we’ve been to Red Bull and the front lot on a Friday,” Norris said. “So encouraging from a pace point of view, but the car feels a bit all over the place.

“But I kind of think it does for the majority — it’s very low grip. I don’t think it’s us in particular; it’s just a handful. So I think for us if we can just try and calm it down a bit, bring the balance together, I think we can have a good day tomorrow.

“I doubt it’s going to be pole — the Red Bull’s just doing the normal Red Bull — but I think we’re not far away. I would say we normally get a bit closer come lower fuel, turn the engines up, things like that. I think challenging for pole is quite a big task and probably a bit too far, but to try and challenge Mercedes — who maybe didn’t look quite so good today — challenge the Ferraris and Astons who looked pretty good, I think that’s going to be our battle for tomorrow.”