MAX Verstappen was crowned world champion at the end of the Japanese Grand Prix in the most unusual fashion, after a dramatic rain-affected race.
At 4pm local time in Suzuka, two hours after the scheduled start, the teams were sat in the pit lane, wet and miserable, with seemingly little prospect of a race restarting, having managed just one lap at the scheduled start time before the appearance of a red flag. The rain was pouring and the prospect of a meaningful race was slim. Just an hour later, the Dutchman was crowned world champion for the second consecutive year. It was a spectacular turn of events.
Having sat through two hours of commendable broadcast filling, the FIA must have seen something on the weather radar that others couldn’t which gave them the confidence for a resumption, and the race restart procedure began. Two hours earlier, they had tried to get underway as normal, but a crash by Sainz, heavier rain and very poor visibility left the race director with little choice, but to stop the race.
On resumption, the running order was broadly as per qualifying, with Verstappen up front, followed by Leclerc with Perez running in fourth after Sainz’s earlier accident. After a couple of laps behind the safety car, the rolling start began and Verstappen took off into the distance.
All the teams made the early decision to go to intermediate tyres, which, in most cases, could be run to the end of the race. There were a few interesting battles upfront, notably between Ocon and Hamilton, but it was the fight between Perez and Leclerc which ultimately decided the fate of the world championship. There was no doubt that Verstappen would win the race as he was almost a second a lap quicker on average compared to his closest rival, so the focus was mainly on the rest of the podium.
Leclerc was holding second going into the final lap despite Perez’s best efforts, but an error sent him off track and although he came back on ahead of Perez, there was no doubt the race officials would want to review the incident. At the end of the race, the stewards did indeed conclude that Leclerc had been off the track and gained an advantage and gave him a five second time penalty. This promoted Perez to second place.
Then the confusion started. The TV graphics flashed up Verstappen as world champion, but seemingly all the teams and media present thought this to be incorrect and that he was a point short. Cue a brief period of confusion as rules were checked, calculations were made and it swiftly became clear that Verstappen was indeed world champion. F1 and the FIA had got the rules spot-on. It just seemed that they were the only ones who knew the rules properly.
Ultimately however, despite the unusual manner in which it materialised, this race weekend will be remembered as the one where Max was crowned world champion for the second time. For the Dutchman, this will feel very different compared to 2021. He has been totally dominant, driving a superior car consistently with a level of brilliance which, at times, made it look effortless. There can be no doubt that 2022 belongs to him and with this level of dominance, who knows how many more he can add to that list.
Overall, the weekend was a hugely welcome return to Suzuka, after two years off the calendar due to the pandemic. There is something deeply special about this Japanese race, which is a clear favorite amongst the drivers. The fans are as passionate about the sport as anywhere in the world, creating a truly electric atmosphere, together with the usual mix of elaborate homemade headgear.
There were 200,000 fans at the venue to celebrate the sport’s return, which is almost double the attendance of 2019, yet again reflecting the appeal of F1 across the world. It was perhaps fitting and just reward for the patient Japanese fans that a Honda-powered car would be crowned champion in Suzuka.
Off the track, the big news was all about further movements in the driver market, with Gasly confirmed at Alpine, which will mean an all-French line up for the team. Gasly and Ocon have a long history together, having grown up in the same area of France and spent their early years karting together. Recent relations have been somewhat less cordial, although both drivers seemed comfortable they will have a good relationship moving forward.
At the same time, Nyck de Vries will replace Gasly at Alpha Tauri. The Dutchman is an obvious talent, having won the Formula 2 championship in 2019 and Formula E in 2021, so although considered a rookie, he comes with considerable and broad racing experience.
Whilst the drivers’ championship is now settled, there is still a lot more to be resolved this season as F1 heads to Austin for another US spectacle in two weeks from now.
* Laurence Jones is senior manager, Marketing and Communications, Bahrain International Circuit