Max Verstappen retains F1 title amid chaos and controversy at Japanese GP

  • Red Bull driver dominates rain-shortened race at Suzuka
  • Leclerc’s penalty seals title; fury at recovery vehicle on track

Max Verstappen it seems just cannot secure a Formula One title without high drama. The Red Bull driver has two now, both concluded with elements of positively Wagnerian theatrics. He sealed the second with victory here at the Japanese Grand Prix but only after a long day of incident and anger, of a denouement at the very final corner of the final lap and as if all this were not enough, some moments of almost high farce, of comic opera, as the champion himself was unaware he had done enough to seal the deal.

After the huge controversy when he took his first title at Abu Dhabi last year, the 25-year-old was doubtless looking forward to closing this one out with some serenity. He had deserved to, having earned this without a doubt, demonstrated not least in his 12th win this year from 18 races in the wet at Suzuka. It was a consummate display that illustrated why he has dominated and indeed won the title with four meetings remaining.

To put Verstappen’s achievement in context he is only the fourth driver to have secured the championship with four or more races in hand. Michael Schumacher took it in 2002 with six to go, Nigel Mansell in 1992 with five, while Sebastian Vettel won with four remaining also at the Japanese GP in 2011.

Rare company indeed but it was far from foregone that he would do it here. He needed a 112-point lead after this race and in beating teammate Sergio Pérez into second and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into third, he finished just 113 up on Pérez.

Fine margins reflected in a race that had been delayed for over two hours because of heavy rain and where, of the 28 laps they managed to decide the title, it was the very last that made all the difference.

Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly veer off the track in the rain at Suzuka
Sebastian Vettel (front) and Pierre Gasly (behind) veer off the track in the rain at Suzuka. Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

It had opened with just two laps before being red-flagged as conditions deteriorated. When it resumed the clock left time to reach only 28 laps, it was still in the rain on a treacherous surface, and yet Verstappen was mighty. Leclerc was in second place but had been left behind, the Dutch driver consistently putting almost a second a lap on him, as the Ferrari fell into the clutches of Pérez.

The Mexican harried him hard and on that final lap, as they entered the chicane Leclerc just overcooked it and had to cut the corner. He emerged through the final turn still in front and took the flag in second. It was enough to take the title fight on to the next round but with surprising rapidity the FIA investigated and shortly afterwards gave him a five-second penalty dropping him to third.

That made the difference, yet the new world champion had no idea he had won it and he was not alone. Across the paddock there was confusion as to just how many points he had earned. The FIA had changed the regulations last year regarding the points awarded in races suspended due to the weather and their application was, it appeared, not entirely clear. Many considered only two-thirds would be applied for completing half the laps. For teams working within such a tightly regulated and highly technical sport there was an unseemly amount of head scratching going on.

Verstappen admitted he had no idea. Happy with the win he climbed from the car and mid post-race interviews the penalty on Leclerc was announced. Yet the points issue remained unresolved, F1’s own hanging chad. As his Red Bull team finally came to the conclusion that full points, crucial in deciding the title, would be awarded since the race had actually finished rather than ending suspended, the penny dropped. Their cheers alerted Verstappen and F1 pressed the world-champion-massive-celebration button, emitting light and noise that brooked no dissent.

The fat lady was singing yet Verstappen still looked a little unconvinced even as the big screen behind him displayed his own face with the words “world champion” emblazoned across it. As an FIA representative confirmed it, that seemed to do the trick. All smiles afterwards he was happy just to have finished the job, although F1 may consider making some of its often arcane rulebook a little more clear, not least to those it directly affects.

Verstappen will long recall those moments of confusion and then elation having clinched it but it was an afternoon other drivers will remember less fondly. When a trackside recovery vehicle was used to remove a stricken car on the track with the field still circulating behind the safety car on lap two – and Pierre Gasly, separated from the pack, passing it at high speed – there was fury at its deployment across the grid.

With memories of the similar circumstances that led to the accident that befell Jules Bianchi at Suzuka in 2014 which ultimately led to his death, there was unanimity in condemning the use of a crane on track.

Bianchi’s father, Philippe, was angry that a similar risk had been taken. “No respect for the life of the driver, no respect for Jules’s memory. Incredible,” he posted on social media.

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It was fortunate no one was hurt and that ultimately the day ended on a high note at least for Red Bull and Verstappen, who may well go on to many more titles. Certainly it would be foolish to bet against it. He may yet even put one away without having everyone assembled furiously thumbing through the rulebook.

Esteban Ocon was fourth for Alpine with Lewis Hamilton in fifth for Mercedes. Vettel was sixth for Aston Martin, Fernando Alonso in seventh for Alpine, George Russell in eighth for Mercedes, Nicholas Latifi ninth for Williams, and Lando Norris 10th for McLaren.


Giles Richards at Suzuka

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