Nearly a week on from Red Bull’s humbling in Singapore, Verstappen utterly dominated the early stages, heading the times from his first flier, a 1m33.719s set on the hard tyres that no one else could get anywhere near as the pack was split across the harder tyre compounds.
This included a prototype medium compound Verstappen switched to after going quickest again on his second flier, his next lap after a quick trip to the pits a 1m37.597s.
He lowered the benchmark to a 1m32.442s before pitting a third of the way into the one-hour session, his gap to nearest rival Fernando Alonso at 0.7s, with the rest well over a second behind.
After a spell in the pits with the rest, Sergio Perez was among the first to head back out on the softs, which require a slow preparation lap on the abrasive Suzuka circuit and its high-energy, demanding corners.
After his first softs flier, Perez still trailed Verstappen’s best on the prototype mediums by 0.6s, before his world champion team-mate re-extended that gap to nearly 1.4s with his first softs effort – a 1m31.647s.
Sainz slotted into second just after Leclerc had demoted Perez, with Alonso then splitting the Ferrari pair around the 40-minute mark and AlphaTauri driver Liam Lawson reported light rain.
With the rest of the leaders back in the pits after just a sole softs flier, Leclerc stayed out and was able to re-take third with his second effort for Ferrari, albeit with a time still nearly a second off Verstappen.
As the leaders headed to the pits to make final changes and take on fuel for race-data gathering to close out the session, several drivers made late gains.
These included Norris climbing to sixth for McLaren while still running the prototype mediums, before Yuki Tsunoda jumped ahead of the Briton and Alonso to claim fourth for AlphaTauri with a late first softs effort heading into the final 10 minutes.
McLaren then shuffled the order behind Verstappen again with both its drivers moving to the softs for the first time in the final minutes, which Oscar Piastri used to jumped from 16th to seventh behind Leclerc, Tsunoda and Alonso.
Norris completed his only effort on the red-walled rubber to jump to third just after the chequered flag fell, ending up 0.7s behind Verstappen.
Those late changes dropped Perez out of the top 10, while George Russell and Lewis Hamilton ended up 13th and 16th but neither used the softs in FP1, along with Alfa Romeo pair Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu.
F1 Japanese Grand Prix – FP1 results:
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