SUZUKA, Japan — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen clinched his second consecutive drivers’ championship by winning the Japanese Grand Prix in the rain at Suzuka on Sunday, a victory that signals a changing of the guard in Formula One.
The 25-year-old Verstappen has been dominant all season and claimed the title with four races to spare with the next – the United States Grand Prix – in two weeks in Austin, Texas.
It could be an anticlimax in the Lone Star State.
The Dutchman started from the pole in pouring rain only for the race to be stopped after two laps as several cars crashed. It resumed two hours later with 28 of the 53 laps completed and Verstappen leading the whole way – from the start and the restart.
He was followed by teammate Sergio Perez in second and Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc. They were the only drivers who could have overtaken Verstappen for the title.
Verstappen now has an insurmountable lead with 366 points. Perez has 253 and Leclerc 252. Verstappen needed to be 112 clear to grab the season title at Suzuka.
The @redbullracing party has officially started 🥳
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 9, 2022
He did not know initially that he had won the season title after the shortened race, thinking that the full 25 points for a win would not be awarded. But a short time later, the FIA – F1’s governing body – awarded full points under its technical rules.
Verstappen, still in the dark about the decision, initially apologized to the crowd on the track’s public address system just after the race.
“The championship obviously did not come the way this time around,” he said.
Seconds later, television coverage declared him the season champion, and crew members and friends suffocated him with hugs.
In a session with reporters he again confirmed that he did not know for a long time if the second straight season title was his.
“It’s a great feeling, but when I crossed the line I didn’t believe that we would have won the title right there,” Verstappen said. “Nevertheless, it’s a great day in the end.”
Verstappen seemed befuddled explaining his delayed victory.
“Once I crossed the line I thought: `It was an amazing race, good points again. But I’m not world champion yet.”‘
He said he was tipped off when his mechanics started to cheer, but said he was still confused.
“I don’t mind it was a little confusing,” he said. “I find it actually quite… funny.”
He then summarized the day. “So then we had enough points, so we were world champions again.”
From the pole, Verstappen took the lead with a risky pass after a slow start, but several cars further back lost control including Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who spun and was knocked out. Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu also had a dramatic spin but continued.
Organizers stopped the race after two laps. AlphaTaura’s Pierre Gasly complained on his radio that he passed a recovery vehicle that was allowed on to the track shortly after the safety car emerged. The incident came just as the race was red flagged.
This is a sensitive issue in Japan. In 2014, French driver Jules Bianchi collided on the course with a recovery vehicle. He was placed in an induced coma and died nine months later.
After a two-hour delay, the race restarted and Verstappen never looked back, leading the rest of the way.
Verstappen has had it going all season. He’s been the best driver, in the best car, with the best team. The only blemish is last year’s controversial title, taking the season championship in the final race – on the last lap – ahead of seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes.
FIA, the governing body of F1, is investigating if Red Bull has exceeded a spending cap. A decision is expected to be announced on Monday. It could involve financial penalties, or even strip Verstappen of his 2021 title. The latter would be a public-relations setback and is not expected.
Verstappen has won in all fashions this season – from the back of the field, or recovering after a spin. Sunday’s race was another example of his dexterity. Even mistakes and errors have not slowed him. He had the title wrapped up before the summer break, and it was never a question of if he would win – but when and in how many races.
Winning two titles in a row moves Verstappen into elite company. It also marks a changing of the guard that could mark the end of the Hamilton era.
Some of the modern-era drivers who have won at least two in a row include Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, and Alain Prost. Famous drivers like Jackie Stewart and Nelson Piquet won multiple titles, but never back-to-back.
Verstappen has edged past Hamilton as Formula One’s main man. The 37-year-old Hamilton, whose Mercedes has been disappointing, has not won a race this season and last won in Saudi Arabia, the penultimate race of 2021.
Verstappen has racing is his blood. His father, Jos Verstappen, ran more than 100 races in F1, but failed to ever win one. The elder Verstappen was once a teammate of Michael Schumacher with Benetton for part of the 1994 season.
His mother, Sophie, was a top-ranked kart racer and a skilled driver in her own right.
Verstappen, who was born in Belgium and learned racing there, drives under the flag of the Netherlands – his father’s birthplace. He is the youngest driver to ever make a Formula One debut, at 17 driving for Toro Rosso in 2015.
With 12 victories this season he is nearing the season record of Schumacher and Vettel, both with 13. Schumacher set that standard in 2004 and was matched by Vettel in 2013.
Schumacher had one of the most dominating seasons in 2002 when he won the title at the French Grand Prix with six races still to go. That was when F1 was a 17-race season.