Verstappen clinches his second World Drivers Championship with four races to spare
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen clinched his second consecutive driver’s title by utterly dominating the chaotic rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.
The Dutchman took his 32nd victory spectacularly by more than 25 seconds. Due to the horrendous weather, time regulations, and multiple delays, only 28 of the scheduled 53 laps could be completed. As such, nearly everyone in the sport, including Verstappen, believed the FIA would only award half-points, leaving Verstappen one-point short of guaranteeing him the championship.
However, everything changed when Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc eventually yielded to Red Bull’s Sergio Perez’s unrelenting pressure. The Monegasque locked up going into the race’s final corner, running off track to remain ahead of the Mexican to the flag. Leclerc’s mistake earned a five-second penalty, demoting him to third place.
According to the FIA, full points, rather than staggered points, were awarded (Article 6.5) since the race was resumed after a rain delay, giving Verstappen a 113-point lead in the world championship title with only 112 points left in the season to win.
Thus, with Leclerc’s penalty, Verstappen cemented his second world championship, making him only the third driver after
Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel to clinch the title with four races to spare.
Following Perez and Leclerc were Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, in fourth, who held off a frustrated Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) in fifth. Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel exhibited much of his world championship talent to capture sixth, ahead of twice champion Fernando Alonso. George Russell (Mercedes) claimed eighth, while Latifi earned his first World Championship points in ninth. Lando Norris took the final point for tenth.
Formula 1 returned to the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time since 2019 with Suzuka playing host to the Japanese Grand Prix. The Honda-owned venue has been a near permanent feature on the calendar since 1987 with 11 drivers’ championships having been sealed on the historic figure-of-eight circuit.
Friday’s soaking wet practice hinted that the present Formula 1 order might change with the unexpected Mercedes 1-2 headed by George Russell. But with conditions set to be changeable throughout the weekend, unknown factors could prove pivotal come Saturday afternoon.
After Q3, Max Verstappen expressed satisfaction at converting his strong practice pace into pole position. Having set the pace in FP3 earlier on Saturday, Verstappen locked in pole position in the dry qualifying session by edging out Ferrari pair Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz with a benchmark time of 1m 29.304s, just one-hundredth of a second quicker than the Monegasque.
Before claiming pole position, Verstappen had a near-miss with Lando Norris as both drivers conducted out-laps – the McLaren driver was forced to avoid action when the Red Bull darted left under acceleration at the exit of 130R.
Verstappen avoided a grid penalty for the Japanese Grand Prix after being investigated – the stewards instead opting to hand the Dutchman a reprimand.
Teams faced rain showers Sunday morning, but the rain wasn’t the worst threat; instead, it was sunlight.
A significant factor in Suzuka this time of the year has always been the FIA-mandated daylight starting at 2 pm, pushing against a local sunset at 5:27 pm, with sunlight becoming quite gloomy before that. So the bottom line is Japan has always faced a precise three-hour window with two hours of racing.
Teams were told the current light rain would become heavier as the drivers and crews dialed-in their car’s final wet settings beneath tents on the now-soaked starting grid. Would there be enough light to get the race in?
With just over 40 minutes until lights out, the best F1 managers had already begun factoring in all the pieces.
First was how heavy the rain was, then how many temporary stoppages might be called.
Of course, they had to factor in how the FIA would decide to manage things if the rain was heavy enough to delay the start, after which puddles and darkness would prevail.
Verstappen led the warmup lap with everyone on intermediate tyres. With Suzuka, such an undulating circuit, quite a few areas of standing water and ‘rivers’ could catch even the best drivers.
Verstappen had a good standing start, but Leclerc made a spectacular one, heading to the braking zone at Turn 1 on the inside. Verstappen took the “cart line” remaining on the dryer outside rim well into Turn 2 to retake the lead.
Deep in the blinding spray, Vettel spun…. as did Sainz. The Spaniard snapped sideways into the barriers out of the hairpin, triggering a full Safety Car.
Gasly had picked up some debris – huge advertising panels from Sainz’s crash. The massive board lodged under his front wing and had to come into the pits to be removed.
Albon’s Williams, stuck in second gear, also pulled to the side of the track and out of the race. On the other hand, Lance Stroll made up eight places on that opening lap.
The intensifying rain forced a red flag. Everyone switched to the full wets and readied for the restart, but the race was suspended.
When Lap 3 of 53 finally began, albeit under the safety car, just 40 minutes remained on the racing clock.
As the Safety Car’s lights were turned off, Verstappen led into the final chicane. He immediately reported the need to change to intermediate tyres; sure enough, nearly everyone pitted except the Dutchman and Leclerc.
With minus 36 min., Verstappen and Leclerc pitted for intermediate tyres along with Russell. Two minutes later, there’s chaos in the pit lane, with Alonso now the leader in front of Ricciardo and Mick Schumacher, both of whom have also not stopped.
By minus 31 minutes, Verstappen retook the lead, 4.2 secs in front of Leclerc. At minus 26 minutes, the Dutchman had gained seven more seconds, having gained 1.2 seconds on just the last lap.
At minus 20 mins, Russell passed Norris in the chicane for 9th, with Alonso closing on Vettel. The Grand Prix had reached half points now. Verstappen could not win the title today as it stood.
By 12 minus minutes, Verstappen increased his lead to 15 secs as Hamilton attacked Ocon everywhere on the circuit without any luck.
With 10 mins remaining, the Dutchman led Leclerc by 17s as Perez closed just behind the Monegasque’s rear wing for second place. Verstappen led with Leclerc, Perez, Ocon, Hamilton, Vettel, Russell, Alonso, Latifi and Norris in the far distance.
Leclerc had a big snap out of the final corner with 90 seconds remaining, and Perez closed on the pit straight but couldn’t attempt a move for second place. Alonso was just two seconds behind Russell.
As Verstappen strolled to a dominant victory, Perez was determined to pass Leclerc. He sliced alongside the Monegasque at the hairpin, and they nearly touched. The Mexican sliced inside Leclerc at the final chicane while the Monegasque slid straight through, keeping second place. Leclerc received an instant 5sec penalty at the checkers, moving Perez up to second, with Leclerc now third.
With Leclerc’s penalty, Max Verstappen’s remaining points margin guaranteed the Dutchman his second world championship.