We should have been celebrating Max Verstappen‘s dominant performance to clinch his second world title and Formula 1‘s return to Suzuka. Instead, chaos reigned, as the sport once again found a way to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The Dutchman delivered a true masterclass to win the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix after Charles Leclerc‘s late penalty demoted him to third, but not until some time later was his championship confirmed as rain shortened the race and meant little over half the scheduled laps could be completed.
Most assumed that meant the full allotment of points wouldn’t be awarded but, eventually, the regulation that covered races that had been suspended, restarted and finished under the chequered flag was dug out. It was confusing and took some of the gloss away from the moment.
Worse than that, however, was the incident that struck all too familiar a chord and threw the topic of driver safety back into the spotlight. Let’s unpack what was a dramatic day in Japan…
Verstappen in a league of his own
It’s an easy phrase to throw out and one that is perhaps overused in a sport so dependent on the car. However, in this case, it perhaps doesn’t do Verstappen‘s performance justice.
Only 29 of the 53 planned laps were completed due to heavy rain and a lengthy delay, and of them, only 24 were under full racing conditions after the restart, yet he took the chequered flag nearly 27 seconds ahead of Leclerc.
It was an absolute demolition job in weather that usually levels the playing field somewhat. Just look at Singapore last week and the battle between Sergio Perez and Leclerc as case in point.
However, the Dutchman was completely untroubled. With such a gap, it’s likely he even had plenty speed left in the tank, which is a scary prospect for everyone else.
Confusion reigns – why?
Stewarding in F1 continues to cause controversy and Suzuka was no different. First, there was Leclerc‘s penalty for gaining an advantage at the final chicane in his battle for second with Perez.
The Monegasque was ahead going in but missed the first corner after outbraking himself, before clambering back onto the track and holding off Perez across the line. Unlike last week, he was quickly assessed a five-second penalty, but why wasn’t he allowed to plead his case, as has become the norm of late?
The way it was handled was slammed by Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto and it’s easy to see why. It’s the latest in a long line of wildly inconsistent stewarding decisions.
“I have little desire to comment. I think the choice of the FIA is ridiculous and unacceptable,” Binotto told Sky Sport Italia.
“In the last race they took an infinite time to decide while today a few seconds. There was no advantage gained by Charles.
“We will talk about it in the appropriate places, but this decision taken without even listening to drivers is unacceptable as there was no advantage gained.
“Today it took them a moment to give the penalty to Leclerc. Three hours in Singapore with Perez, poor guy, who couldn’t even follow the Safety Car. Two identical infractions, but different penalties.”
Then there was the ‘was he, wasn’t he’ champion kerfuffle. Throughout the whole race, Sky F1 told us only a percentage of the normal points on offer would be dished out.
So when Johnny Herbert hijacked his own interview with Perez to reveal Verstappen had won the title following Leclerc‘s penalty, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
Not until some 30 minutes later was Article 57 in the regulations cited, which states that because the race was restarted after the suspension, full points could be awarded.
Not even Red Bull knew their starman had mathematically done enough and it all made for a very strange mood, not the coronation befitting of the 25-year-old’s achievements.
Fresh safety concerns overshadow Suzuka return
Formula 1 has take huge strides to improve driver safety over the years. In Japan, the sport took a gigantic leap backwards. Before the red flag was waved, the unacceptable sight of a recovery vehicle on a wet track as drivers passed by was beamed around the world.
At the same venue where Jules Bianchi lost his life in wet conditions as he aquaplaned into a recovery vehicle eight years ago, the situation this year was arguably worse as the crane was actually on the track with cars metres away and visibility severely reduced.
Check it out below…
The FIA has launched an investigation but the initial statement released did little to ease concern at the time.
Understandably, the drivers were fuming. Here are some of the reactions…
Ocon impressively thwarts Hamilton
Esteban Ocon delivered a timely reminder of his ability behind the wheel at Suzuka. The 26-year-old is set to partner Pierre Gasly at Alpine next year and will want to assert his position as team leader.
He’s been outshone a little of late by the departing Fernando Alonso but delivered an excellent Q3 lap to line up fifth, before converting on race day to finish fourth after a race-long battle with Lewis Hamilton.
Try as he might, the seven-time world champion could not find a way past Ocon, who did a brilliant job of positioning his car while not making any mistakes under pressure and in tricky conditions.
It was his best result of the season which, coupled with Alonso‘s seventh-place finish, vaulted Alpine back ahead of McLaren in the battle for fourth in the Constructors’ Championship.
Merc’s weakness laid bare
Mercedes designed thee engine at the start of the turbo-hybrid era in 2014, which makes it hard to fathom that straight-line speed is now the W13’s glaring weakness.
However, that’s the F1 world we’re currently living in. The car generally looked to be performing well at Suzuka but lacked the pace to challenge for pole on Saturday.
Come Sunday, its ‘draggy’ nature was plain for all to see in Hamilton‘s battle for fourth with Ocon. Lap after lap, the Brit pulled alongside his rival coming out of the hairpin, setting him up for an attack through 130R and into the final chicane.
But rather than glide past in the slipstream, the Alpine actually pulled away. It was a bizarre sight and something the team will have to address if they want to make up ground next season.
After heaping praise on his team for the majority of the season, George Russell had some harsh words for what he felt was a race-ruining decision.
The world champions opted to double stack Hamilton and Russell at the same time as the majority of the field switched from full wets to inters, and there’s no denying it cost the 24-year-old time.
“The worst decision ever,” was how Russell described it despite Mercedes’ insistence he’d have lost more time doing an extra lap on the slower tyres.
He fought back to finish eighth but believes he could have challenge his teammate for fifth. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s the second Sunday in succession that the Brit has been a bit of a non-factor.
He still leads Hamilton by 27 points but his hopes of a top-three finish look all but extinguished.
Praise for Latifi
He comes under a fair amount of criticism, so it’s only fair to give credit where its due for Nicholas Latifi‘s strong showing on Sunday in Japan.
In practice, he took a wrong turn at Suzuka to the amusement of many and in qualifying he finished dead last, but he recovered to clinch his first points of 2022 after executing a great strategy from Williams.
Alongside Vettel, the Canadian took the gamble to pit for inters on the same lap the Safety Car came in, gaining eight places when the rest of the field followed suit, and impressively hanging onto ninth after a long stint on tyres that were well past their best come the chequered flag.
Move of the day
The final word rightly goes to Verstappen. For all that he ran out a convincing winner in the end, it could have been very different had he not pulled off the move of the day.
At the first race start, the Dutchman made a poor getaway and looked to have lost the lead to Leclerc, only to come roaring back past around the outside of Turn 1.
Making it extra special was the fact that many drivers reported the intermediate tyre was the wrong compound to be on, meaning the margin for error was even smaller. However, such is his car control that he made it look easy.
Had he not done that, he’d have been behind his rival at the resumption with no guarantee he’d have been able to regain position. On such margins are world championships won and lost, and although this year wasn’t close. you’d be brave to bet against him should another championship come down to the wire.