Verstappen is champion again with classy drive in anti-climactic decider

2022 Japanese Grand Prix review

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When 17-year-old Max Verstappen peeled out of the Suzuka pit lane for the very first time in a Formula 1 car back in 2014, those who had seen what he could do in the junior categories suspected they might be witnessing the beginning of a glittering F1 career.

In 2022, that prodigious talent returned to the track his Formula 1 story began almost 3,000 days earlier to cement his place among the undisputed greats of the sport by sealing his second world drivers’ championship title. Unfortunately for Verstappen and his loved ones assembled at the circuit, he would win the race, but he would not secure his second world title.

Until, that is, he did.

The events that unfolded throughout the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix which resulting in Max Verstappen being declared world champion for the second successive season were complex, confusing and, at times, deeply concerning. But remarkably, they all had very little to do with the champion himself.

For only the fifth time this season, Verstappen had earned the luxury of starting from pole position. Fittingly, the only driver who had consistently been able to offer any kind of challenge to the Red Bull driver’s supremacy – Charles Leclerc – sat alongside him on the grid. Heavy rain had arrived from the east overnight and refused to ease up over the course of the day. As the teams began to set up on the grid to prepare their cars for the start, any question of ‘will the rain come?’ had evolved into ‘will the rain stop?’.

The track was saturated when the first start was given
As the puddles sitting along the Suzuka circuit rippled with rain, Verstappen, Leclerc and 17 other opponents pulled off the grid on intermediate tyres on the Formation Lap for a rare standing start on a wet track. Only Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri did not join them after being banished to start from the pit lane.

When the lights went out, Verstappen and Leclerc pulled off their grid slots in tandem as the entire field of Formula 1 cars behind them vanished in a plume of spray. In a visual metaphor for how the season itself had unfolded, Leclerc got the better start of the two and pulled his nose ahead of Verstappen on the run down the hill to turn one only for Verstappen to break Ferrari’s hopes by charging around the outside to emerge with the lead.

As the pack wound through the Esses and up the hill for the first time, drivers were having to rely on almost supernatural senses to navigate through the intense spray virtually blinding them. Fernando Alonso dived inside Lewis Hamilton at the hairpin to take fifth place, but the Mercedes driver quickly took back the place on exit. As the pair headed back uphill to the 200R, they were greeted by flashing yellow lights – Carlos Sainz Jnr’s Ferrari had aquaplaned off the circuit and into the barrier.

“I crashed. I crashed,” Sainz reported back to his team, wincing in his cockpit as the vast majority of the field flashed by him at near 200km/h in the spray. “I cannot see anything.”

Race start, Suzuka, 2022
Leclerc started well but Verstappen swiftly drew ahead
Around 200 metres further down the road, Alexander Albon pulled off into retirement, a consequence of early contact with Kevin Magnussen which had damaged the FW44’s radiator. With two cars stranded at one of the most treacherous parts of the circuit, the Safety Car was inevitably deployed. Given a reprieve from racing, drivers expressed their concern at the conditions.

“The visibility is too bad,” argued Lando Norris. “It’s too much water. You can’t see a thing – it’s too dangerous. You can’t even see the guy who crashed…”

Sainz’s crash into the tyre wall dislodged an advertising board which Hamilton’s Mercedes narrowly missed as it passed by. Having started from the pit lane, Gasly had caught up to the back of the field as they’d tiptoed around the opening lap, only to suddenly find the advertising board appear in front of him as he passed the accident scene.

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“Oh I took a fucking thing… what the hell is that?,” exclaimed a startled Gasly. “Oh my god… I got a fucking board stuck in my wing!”

Barely able to see in front of him, Gasly recovered to the pits for a new front wing and wet tyres. As he tried to catch up to the back of the train, he was in for a second nasty surprise in the space of two laps when he rounded the 200R corner to pass Sainz’s stricken Ferrari, only to be greeted by a crane perilously sat at the end of the track near-invisible in the poor visibility. Given the memories triggered by these circumstances in these conditions at this circuit, Gasly’s disgust was more than justified.

“What the- what is this tractor?,” an incensed Gasly shouted into his radio. “What is this tractor on track? This is unacceptable! Remember what has happened! Can’t believe this…”

The race was being red-flagged as Gasly reached the crane. Verstappen led the train of cars into the pit lane to begin one of the lengthiest rain delays in Formula 1 history. Minutes led to hours. The thousands of dedicated Japanese fans packing the grandstands waited in perfect patience, hoping that their three-year wait to watch Formula 1 at Suzuka once more would not be reduced to half a lap of green flag racing.

After an aborted restart attempt, the race clock slowly ticked into the third and final hour permitted by the regulations. Eventually, with only 55 minutes of time remaining, the teams were given the ten-minute warning they had been waiting for – they would race again.

Race start, Suzuka, 2022
The first start was messy, and brief
This time race director Eduardo Freitas took away the teams’ power to decide which type of wet tyre to use by sending the field off behind the Safety Car, making the ‘full wets’ mandatory. By the time the Safety Car led Verstappen out of the pit lane and onto the sodden circuit to complete the longest lap three in Formula 1 history, only 48 minutes remained on the clock.

Drivers were not unanimous in their assessment of the conditions. Daniel Ricciardo reckoned the track was “not too bad in most places”, while both Verstappen and Hamilton agreed that the track would not be too far away from intermediate conditions by the time they would be released back up to racing speeds.

Much further back in the pack, Valtteri Bottas was still not convinced the time was right to go racing. “I can’t see anything,” the Alfa Romeo driver protested. “It needs to be red-flagged.”

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Eventually, the race director made his decision and the train prepared themselves to go back racing over two hours after the initial red flag. Verstappen led from Leclerc, Perez, Ocon, Hamilton and Alonso with George Russell following the Alpine behind in seventh. As the leaders searched for grip on their wet tyres, Sebastian Vettel and Nicholas Latifi had other ideas, choosing to pull into the pits and switch to the intermediate tyres.

A rolling start got the race back underway after a two-hour wait
Any question of whether moving to intermediates was a wise move or a poor plan was immediately answered when Vettel matched the race leader in the middle on his first lap out of the pits. It did not take long for the leaders to respond, with Red Bull bringing Verstappen in at the end of lap seven. Leclerc, Perez, Ocon and the two Mercedes followed suit, while Alonso stayed out to inherit the lead.

A lap later, Alonso was in for inters of his own and all Verstappen had to do to recover the lead was breeze past Mick Schumacher, who pressed on with his wet tyres as Haas hoped the Safety Car might reappear. Once back in the lead, the Red Bull was just over three seconds ahead of Leclerc, with Perez a further five back in third place.

Verstappen was warned to look after his intermediates to help them last for the 18 laps they projected would be covered over the last 32 minutes of the race. The leader took his team’s feedback on board and promptly set the fastest lap of the race, over 1.5 seconds faster than Leclerc behind him. Once comfortable with his new tyres, Leclerc picked up the pace to not just match Verstappen’s fastest lap but beat it, but that would be the closest the Ferrari would get to the Red Bull for the rest of the race.

Feeling his intermediates already falling past their best, Leclerc questioned whether stopping for a second set before the end of the race would be worth it. Ferrari seemed unsure, so left him out in his pursuit of Verstappen. However, Leclerc was now falling back at the rate of a second a lap, Verstappen now out of sight ahead of him with Perez in the second Red Bull creeping up behind him.

Back in seventh, Alonso was unable to find a way passed Vettel’s Aston Martin. With under ten minutes remaining, Alpine mulled pulling him in for a second set of inters, eventually pulling the trigger. Alonso rejoined in tenth with just over eight minutes in order to make up the four places and 24 seconds he would need to make his strategy successful.

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By now, Perez was so close to the second-placed Ferrari that the Red Bull driver began questioning why his DRS wasn’t working, having apparently forgotten that race control rarely activate it in such wet conditions. Leclerc had to remain focused as Perez filled his mirrors, placing him under intense pressure but unable to get close enough to try and attempt a pass.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Suzuka, 2022
Verstappen had a 27-second lead by the end
Ahead of them, Verstappen’s lead was now large enough that he could safely enquire about pitting for new tyres and pursue the bonus point for fastest lap. Red Bull quickly nixed that suggestion and soon time was almost fully expired – Verstappen eventually crossing the line at the top of the hour with nothing but zeroes remaining on the timer.

“Final lap,” his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase alerted him. But as he exited the Esses, he received another update.

“Okay Max, there seems to be some confusion over whether the race is over,” Lambiase told him. “We think it is, so just bring it home.”

It wasn’t until he was rounding the hairpin, halfway through the lap, that Verstappen learned he had already been declared winner of the Japanese Grand Prix. “Well done, mate – you’ve won it!,” team principal Christian Horner congratulated his driver on yet another victory.

Meanwhile, nearly half a minute behind, Leclerc and Perez were still battling over second. Under braking for the chicane for what would be the final time on balding intermediates, Leclerc ran off and over the escape, rejoining just ahead of the Red Bull and then blocking him by squeezing Perez on the exit.

“What is he doing mate?” an exasperated Perez asked. “He went off and he pushed me off. He went really unsafe. He should get a good penalty.”

Race control quickly announced that Leclerc would be under investigation for the incident, but while Perez backed off after being told he’d finished the race, there was confusion for Ferrari.

“And one lap to go, one lap,” the Leclerc driver was told before by engineer Xavier Marcos Padros before being immediately contradicted by their car’s own automated message system, which chirpily informed him that he’d taken the “chequered flag”.

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As the drivers behind made their way across the line, only a worrying proportion of them realised the race was now over. Many carried on at unabated speed, while some of those who had backed off developed herd mentality as other rivals blasted passed them, picking up their own speed just in case the race was not now official. Alonso, who had crossed the line side-by-wide with Vettel, needed particularly strong lobbying before he was persuaded the race had indeed come to an end.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, Suzuka, 2022
Two other multiple champions battled to the end
Outside of the podium, Ocon and Hamilton had taken fourth and fifth following a similarly tense duel over the final laps, with the Alpine emerging victorious. Vettel bode farewell to his favourite F1 track in strong style, only just holding off Alonso in a drag race by 0.011s – Alonso centimetres away from having made his team’s strategy pay off.

Russell was behind in eighth, with Nicholas Latifi successfully converting Williams’ tyre gamble at the restart into his first points of the season. Lando Norris capped off a difficult weekend for McLaren by taking the final point in tenth.

With his 12th win of the 18 races so far this year, Verstappen had been left to accept that the title would now almost certainly be sealed in Austin in two weeks’ time. But then Leclerc was handed a five-second time penalty for leaving the track at the chicane and then keeping Perez behind him. This dropped him behind Perez and, suddenly, Verstappen’s championship situation had improved.

A penalty cost Leclerc second and made Verstappen champion
Though not, Red Bull believed, enough for him to clinch the championship. They, along with their rival teams, expected that the win would only pay 19 points as the race had not reached 75% distance.

But as Verstappen caught up with Leclerc in parc ferme, he was thrust back into the spotlight to receive news that should have been among the greatest he would receive in his career. Instead, he was awkwardly pulled back to be informed that, according to the FIA, full points were being rewarded due to a technicality in how the time limit rules were being interpreted.

With that, Max Verstappen was a two-time world champion.

“During the race, I had no clue what they were going to decide with the points,” Verstappen said. “Of course, the main target was to win the race. But yeah, once I crossed the line, I was like, ‘okay, that was an amazing race.”

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Behind his now double-world champion team mate, Perez was pleased to have finally dispatched Leclerc at the finish, even if it required the help of the stewards to do so.

“He was making it really hard, so I knew that the only way I could get him was if I push him into a mistake,” said Perez. “Towards the end, I thought there was one more lap left so when he went off, I thought that was going to be the opportunity.”

Leclerc had tried his level best to keep the Red Bull behind him all race, only to just miss out just as he had ultimately had on a bid for the world championship over the course of 2022. As just as ever, he was magnanimous in defeat.

“Of course, a huge congratulations to Max and to Red Bull,” Leclerc said. “They’ve done an incredible job this year. Max has just been incredible and it’s a title fully deserved.”

Amid all the controversy and confusion of the race, Verstappen had once again come out of the other side in 2022 victorious. Fittingly, he had managed to secure his second world championship title at the same circuit he had first introduced himself properly on the world stage eight years prior – a circuit owned by those responsible for powering him to his two world titles: Honda.

Verstappen clinched back-to-back world championship titles
“I think everyone, or most people, told us we were crazy when we started to work with them back in the day,” Verstappen said of Honda. “’Is it going to work out’, because they had a tough time at that time. But you see, never give up and full dedication to make it work, and that’s what happened.”

With two titles down and five full seasons with Red Bull yet to come on his contract, the new champion feels there’s no reason why he and his team will not continue their success over that entire timespan.

“If I have a competitive car, I’m confident that we can keep this going,” said the champion.

“It also depends on what the competition is going to come up with. But I really believe in this group. And I really hope that in the coming years, we can enjoy a lot more wins, and potentially, of course, championships.”

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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21 comments on “Verstappen is champion again with classy drive in anti-climactic decider”

  1. Jelle van der Meer (@)
    10th October 2022, 8:18

    “With two titles down and five full seasons with Red Bull yet to come on his contract,”

    Should that not be 6 full seasons (2023, 2024, 2025, 2026, 2027 and 2028)

    1. With two titles down and five full seasons with Red Bull yet to come on his contract, the new champion feels there’s no reason why he and his team will not continue their success over that entire timespan.

      That’s a bold statement!

      1. One might say that you don’t have to scream to be right, but perhaps Jelle feels different.

    2. Two[*][**] time champion!

      [*] in an illegal race
      [**] in an illegal car ?

      1. knowing asterix and his friends beat the romans, collecting asterixes is great!

      2. @falken. Pitiful comment…

        1. Invalid championships.
          Which is a shame, he earned 1 of them.

  2. Congratulations to Verstappen, a truly dominant season, perfectly summed up with this race. For the sake of a more entertaining championship though I think we would need Mercedes to be competitive next year. I’m not convinced Leclerc or Sainz will ever have the consistency to beat Verstappen unless they have a much more superior car (again perfectly summed up with this race). Hamilton is the only other driver on the grid to have shown that level of high performance consistently over a season.

    I don’t think I could handle all the circus that would inevitably surround that though, but if we want a close drivers title I think that’s the only way it will happen next year.

  3. Again? He’s won it twice?

    News to me……

  4. I quote. “complex, confusing and, at times, deeply concerning.”
    OH? Just like the first fraudulent, manipulated one then?
    Forever in my book this will be the only genuine WDC Max has won.
    Congratulations to Max for winning this WDC.

    1. If last season was so fraudulent and manipulated, surely if Hamilton had won it instead you would feel the same way?
      Hamilton would still only have 7….?

  5. I wonder how long the asterisk commenters will keep it up.
    I guess it will be less every year until we reach number 8*.

    1. You know how it goes
      Michael Schumacher got 7 asterisks
      Juan Manuel Fangio, 5 asterisks,
      Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel 4 asterisks etc.
      and so on…

    2. I remember when Rosberg won the championship a lot of Hamilton fans were saying that he only won because Mercedes gave Rosberg preferential treatment. They can’t seem to take someone beating him. I think its a mental condition unfortunately.

  6. You know how it goes
    Michael Schumacher got 7 asterisks
    Juan Manuel Fangio, 5 asterisks,
    Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel 4 asterisks etc.
    and so on…

  7. The rain is the great equaliser and I enjoyed this one. A dominant and deserved win with 27 s margin for Max. I’m sure that he would have pitted and set fastest lap if they had known full points were rewarded. Well deserved WDC for both RB and Max. However I hope we don’t get into a new dominating era with RB and Max like we have had in the past so many times. Also credits to Charles for the sportsmanship accepting the penalty without complains

  8. The lead Verstappen pulled was ominous. Nobody is even close to Red Bull’s performance, and there’s none of the 2014-2016 excitement of an intra-team rivalry because the other Red Bull was fighting it out with the much slower Ferrari and couldn’t even mount a single overtaking attempt, relying instead on a dodgy penalty to snatch 2nd.

    Unfortunately, it also seems the Red Bull talent pool has dried up so that no change is to be expected. Gasly and Albon aren’t good enough, and Tsunoda doesn’t seem to have improved much almost 50 Grand Prix into his career. They’re left fishing in Mercedes’ pool and setting up awkward schemes to get unlicensed drivers into F1.

    Whether or not F1 will produce another worthwhile championship fight in the near future will, seemingly, mostly depend on whether Mercedes can be bothered to heavily invest once more. That they’ve already sold parts of the Brackley outfit suggests that might not be a sure thing. With the extremely heavily prescribed 2026 engines due soon, F1 isn’t nearly as interesting for a manufacturer as it was before either.

    1. I don’t think Perez was relying on a penalty he pressed Charles into a mistake and tried to overtake him in the assumption there would be another lap. Max has always been dominant to his teammates so I don’t see an intrateam battle in the near future. However I still hope that next to MB and Ferrari also other teams will will rise, Alpine as a manufacturer and maybe Mclaren with Lando or even Aston Martin with Alonso can join the fight for the wins

  9. Well done Max, super strong! But Red Bull need a better driver in the other car, for the sports sake. Max will win at a canter without proper competition and Perez is nowhere near it.

  10. past, not passed.

    run a spellcheck or something.

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