“We need a perfect weekend,” he said, knowing the crown was his if he could leave Japan with a world championship lead of 112 points or more over closest rivals Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) and team-mate Sergio Pérez. Sounds simple, right? Sure, but Sunday’s 53-lap race was anything but.
Verstappen’s victory was his 12th of a record-setting season, but how it came about was protracted, somewhat confusing, and came with a late-race twist. Torrential rain saw the race last all of two laps before it was red-flagged, and it looked like a race wouldn’t happen at all, the standing water on the track delaying a restart for more than two hours, and with dusk approaching rapidly under Suzuka’s leaden skies.
When action resumed, initially behind the safety car before Verstappen led the field away on Lap 6, the Dutchman cleared off to such an extent that there was little intrigue as to who would win the race. Behind him, though, team-mate Pérez was about to play his part.
Leclerc had Pérez in his wheel tracks as the last lap of the truncated 28-lap race began, with the three-hour time window permitted to hold the race running out. On the final corner, Leclerc ran off track and gained an advantage to keep Pérez behind him, and was issued a five-second post-race penalty that promoted the Mexican to second for Red Bull’s fifth 1-2 result this season.
Race winner Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing celebrates winning the World Championship with the team. 09.10.2022. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 18, Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan, Race Day. – www.xpbimages.com
Then the twist had another twist: in completing 28 laps, full world championship points were awarded as the race had gone past 50 per cent of its scheduled number of laps. That, allied with Leclerc’s penalty, meant Verstappen had a 113-point championship lead where 112 would suffice to wrap up his second title; halfway through his post-race pre-podium interview, Verstappen was told the title – not just the win – was his.
Only Alberto Ascari (1952-53), Jack Brabham (1959-60), Alain Prost (1985-86), Michael Schumacher (1994-95), Mika Hakkinen (1998-99) and Sebastian Vettel (2010-11) have managed what the 25-year-old Dutchman has done in 2021 and 2022, and that his achievement came in Honda’s backyard at Suzuka and set a new benchmark for Red Bull made this win all the more rewarding.
Verstappen’s victory was his 12th this year and the 14th earned by Red Bull in 2022, usurping 2013 (13 wins) as the most successful season in the team’s history, while his 32nd F1 victory saw him join fellow two-time world champion Fernando Alonso for sixth in the all-time record books.
If the sight of Red Bull spraying the championship champagne in Suzuka looks familiar, it should; the last time Japan played host to the title-deciding race of a season came in 2011, the second of Vettel’s four consecutive world titles for the team.
With all of the field starting Sunday’s delayed race on wet-weather tyres and with visibility at a premium, it was a case of fortune favouring the brave for those bold enough to switch to intermediate tyres sooner than was ideal – and two drivers at the back used that gamble to score points.
In his final race at Suzuka before his retirement, Vettel found himself at the back in his Aston Martin after being nudged off track by Alpine’s Fernando Alonso at start, while Williams driver Nicholas Latifi qualified last and figured he had nothing to lose. The pair pitted as soon as they could once the safety car released the field, and made massive gains before their rivals could react.
Vettel and Latifi faded as their tyres aged and the chequered flag loomed, but held firm to finish sixth (Vettel) and ninth (Latifi) respectively, Latifi’s two world championship points his first of the year.
From an Asian double-header we’ve completed for the first time in three years to an American back-to-back we have more recent history with; F1 heads back Stateside after a week’s break following Japan to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin for the United States Grand Prix (October 23), which precedes the Mexico City Grand Prix a couple of hours’ flight south the following Sunday (October 30).
It’s a double-header that resonated with Verstappen a year ago, the Dutchman annexing the perfect 50-point haul to increase his championship lead en route to world title number one, while his past three visits to Austin have ended up with him wearing a Stetson on the podium and taking home a trophy (second in 2018 and third in 2019 before last year’s victory).
Before he had a true home race in 2015, Pérez called F1’s annual visit to COTA his ‘home’ race, and with good reason as thousands of his fans flocked across the border to cheer on their hero. Last year’s third place – as part of a trio of thirds sandwiched between Turkey and Mexico – is by far Checo’s best Austin result in nine outings at the Texan track.