Championship point. Again.
Max Verstappen has his second opportunity to seal the Formula 1 title this weekend. If he were to be successful, he’d write himself into the history books alongside several of the sport’s most famous names to have won the championship at the renowned Suzuka Circuit.
No fewer than 11 drivers have claimed a championship in Japan, enhancing the reputation of Formula 1’s pre-eminent Asian circuit.
It’s a race every driver wants to win for its won right, but for Verstappen victory would almost certainly bring particular acclaim.
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He’s well placed to do it too. The fast and flowing circuit layout should perfectly suit his Red Bull Racing car and allow him to set the bar for Ferrari and Mercedes to reach. If he maximises his machinery, he’ll be extremely difficult to stop.
And that’ll be fantastic news for Honda, which appears to be ramping up its Formula 1 involvement mere months after scaling back. Its partnership with Red Bull Racing is growing as the team seizes the ascendancy, and claiming the first leg of a title double at home would be superb way to being rekindling the relationship.
But no matter the outcome, Formula 1 reuniting with Japan is a good news story. There’s nowhere else on the calendar like it, and after two seasons without Suzuka on the calendar, this weekend the sport feels whole again.
WHAT ARE THE TITLE PERMUTATIONS?
Max Verstappen has his second match point this weekend, and while in Singapore he needed much to go his way to stitch up his second championship, in Japan the odds are greatly in his favour.
Verstappen has won 11 of 17 races, or about two-thirds of the calendar to date. Put another way, he’s more likely than not to win this weekend, at least according to the raw statistics.
He needs to leave Japan with a 112-point lead. He leads Charles Leclerc by 106 points and Sergio Perez by 108 points. He needs to outscore Leclerc by eight points and Perez by six to seal it.
In practical terms the equation looks as follows.
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Max Verstappen will win the championship if he wins the race with the fastest lap.
If he finishes:
– first without the fastest lap, Leclerc must finish third or lower;
– second, Leclerc must finish fifth (sixth with fastest lap) or lower and Perez fourth or lower (fifth with FL);
– third, Leclerc must finish seventh or lower and Perez sixth or lower;
– fourth, Leclerc must finish eighth or lower (ninth with FL) and Perez seventh or lower (eighth with FL);
– fifth, Leclerc must finish ninth or lower (10th with FL) and Perez eighth or lower (ninth with FL); or
– sixth, Leclerc must finish outside the points and Perez ninth or lower (10th with FL).
If he finishes seventh or lower, he cannot win the championship.
On average Verstappen is finishing one position higher than both Leclerc and Perez this season, so again the average suggests he’ll be able to do just enough to stitch up the championship this weekend.
Speaking to reporters in Japan, Verstappen said he wasn’t concerning himself thinking about his much-improved odds of winning this weekend compared to seven days earlier in Singapore.
“It would be very nice if it happens here, but if it doesn’t happen here, it would be more in favour in the next race [again],” he said.
“It doesn’t change anything. We just want to have a good weekend and maximise everything we can.
“I need a perfect weekend to be able to clinch the title here, but to be honest, I’m not thinking about it too much.”
Eleven championships have been decided in Japan — James Hunt (1976), Nelson Piquet (1987), Ayrton Senna (1988, 1990–91), Alain Prost (1989), Damon Hill (1996), Mika Häkkinen (1998), Michael Schumacher (2000) and Sebastian Vettel (2011).
Can Verstappen make it 12?
CAN ALPINE BOUNCE BACK OR WILL RICCIARDO FIRE AGAIN?
Alpine had been leading the battle for fourth in the constructors standings fairly comfortably ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix — until both engines blew.
McLaren, meanwhile, had an unexpectedly competitive weekend despite the track poorly suiting the car, with Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finishing a season-best fourth and fifth.
It reversed the balance of power in the standings, with McLaren leading by four points with five races remaining.
You can cut this battle several different ways. Alpine’s failure to profit from having a faster car is clearly one of them, but Ricciardo being off the pace of his teammate for most of the season has in turn prevented McLaren from capitalising.
But in Singapore he was right where he needed to be via a sizzling start and perfectly executed strategy to rise from 16th to fifth.
“Relieved. Happy. Pleased,” he said when asked how he felt about his best result of the year. “It was honestly a bit sad that I haven‘t had a top five this year, so it was good to get that, but it was also like the sad reality of, ‘Oh wow, it’s been quite a tough year’.
“For both of us to be top five, it was just like a wholesome environment that we‘d certainly missed on those Sunday nights. We hadn’t had many of those.”
“It‘s the sport, how it can turn around just as quickly in a couple hours on a Sunday.
“It‘s obviously put us back into the fight, which obviously is good. It felt like it was starting to slowly get away from us. But a big weekend has got us right back there.
“Happy and try to take it down to the wire.”
But just as Ricciardo’s improved form has got McLaren back into the fight, so too will his good form keep it there. Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon have been reasonably well matched for points over the year when the car’s been reliable — Alonso fairly points out he’s lost a stack of points through technical problems — but the disparity between the McLaren teammates means the front isn’t as united as it ought to be.
Suzuka is a track that should suit the MCL36 in the most part too, with the car preferring the medium and high-speed sweeps compared to slow Singapore. The Alpine car, however, tends to go well everywhere, meaning we have a real battle on our hands.
Excluding Ricciardo’s technical disqualification in 2019 — he’d crossed the line sixth — he hasn’t finished out of the points in Japan since his Toro Rosso days and has one podium to his name. He’s typically been decent here; now’s not the time for that streak to end.
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HOW IS HONDA’S HOMECOMING SHAPING UP?
In October 2020 Honda announced it would withdraw from Formula 1 as a power unit manufacturer in a bitter blow to Red Bull Racing, AlphaTauri and the sport itself.
It was also gutting for Japanese motorsport fans, who never got a chance to see a competitive Honda-powered car in this era of the Japanese marque’s F1 story.
The 2020 season, in which Honda powered Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri to three wins, 14 podiums and one pole position, was obviously severely affected by the pandemic and hosted mostly in Europe.
The Japanese Grand Prix was cancelled again in 2021, depriving Japan of witnessing Honda power Max Verstappen to what would become his maiden title.
Yuki Tsunoda, the Honda protégé driver, has also never had the opportunity to enter his home grand prix.
Finally those wrongs will be righted with the grand return of the Japanese Grand Prix.
But this is turning out to be a more momentous week than that for the Japanese marque.
Honda, Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri have announced a strengthening of their relationship from this week until the end of 2025, when the current power unit rules expire, in a deal that looks suspiciously like the one the team announced it was ripping up back in 2020.
To recap, both Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri have continued running Honda power units despite the manufacturer’s purported withdrawal. In a factory support sense nothing has really changed, with Honda technicians still embedded in each team, but rather than it being a works relationship, this year has strictly been something more like a customer deal.
But ever since the Honda engine became a championship contender last year and throughout Red Bull Racing’s ascendancy this year there’s been an undercurrent of regret and even a rumour that Honda might return to F1 in a full works partner capacity or even as a fully fledged constructor.
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These renewed terms will do nothing to quell those rumours, particularly in light of the collapse of talks between Porsche and Red Bull over an engine design deal for 2026.
“Honda has invested significantly in hybrid technology over the course of our partnership,” RBR principal Christian Horner said. “This has ensured the supply of competitive power units to both teams, for which we are very grateful.
“Our combined goal is to continue to deliver dominant engines and achieve the most success possible in the following three years.
“To mark this, we look forward to welcoming the Honda logo back on to the car from Suzuka onwards.”
It could be the start — again — or an important Honda chapter.
WHO WILL MASTER ICONIC SUZUKA?
Honda and its partners aren’t the only ones looking forward to getting back on track in Japan. In fact there’s no-one in Formula 1 who isn’t relishing the first opportunity in three years to tackle Suzuka.
This is Asia’s most internationally historic circuit and arguably its most famous. Built as a Honda test track in 1962 to turbocharge its development as an automotive manufacturer and racing team, it’s a well-rounded challenge of car and driver, and its flowing, high-speed nature is a thrill to even the most seasoned of drivers.
In fact the thin 5.807-kilometre figure-eight ribbon of tarmac slicing through the Japanese countryside is the only track Sebastian Vettel would consider coming out of his imminent retirement to revisit.
“Obviously I love driving and I think around this track I always felt very alive and the passion feels very alive,” he said. “Maybe one of the guys in the future who races here will feel a bit sick — I don‘t know. I don’t wish them to feel so, but I wouldn’t mind jumping back in for a race in Suzuka at any time.
“We‘ll see what the future brings. At the moment I have no plans, but I think there are some exciting races happening in Japan.”
Lewis Hamilton, also a four-time Japanese Grand Prix winner said the uniqueness of the track was unparalleled.
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“You get here and you’ve got this crazy, amazing circuit,” he said. “It’s all medium and high-speed corners.
“Big undulations, history, the best racing when [Ayrton] Senna and [Alain] Prost were racing, and now I get to race on it.
“It’s a circuit that if you go over the white line, it’s grass or grass and gravel. In many scenarios you can’t even see the edge of the circuit because you’re kind of dipped in the car — you’re looking at the sky going up through turn 6, for example.
“They don’t make circuits like they [used to]. They literally built around the topography of the land here as opposed to flattening it all off and making fake hills and stuff.
“It’s one of the originals.“
“It’s a pretty mega week. Best week of the year, I’d say.”
And then of course there are the Japanese fans, who are absolutely unrivalled in their support for Formula 1. As opposed to the partisan supporters who tend to populate races elsewhere in the world, every driver and every team has its own enthusiastic — but typically polite — cheer squad.
The grandstands often stay full late at night, long after the last session, just to soak in the atmosphere, and drivers frequently receive gifts as they walk into the paddock.
It’s a unique part of the F1 landscape, and the sport is richer for it.
WHAT’S THE WEATHER DOING?
Raining, to put it simply. At least on Friday.
The forecast for practice day is grim, with rain on the radar throughout the day. There’s a 90 per cent chance of receiving up to 4 millimetres of rain in time for first practice, with that decreasing to around 1 millimetre three hours later, when final practice is due to start.
It’s got nothing on the Bathurst forecast, but it’s still enough to throw a spanner in the works.
It’s a potentially dispiriting prediction considering the rest of the weekend is likely to be dry, which in turn means few teams are likely to do any significant running in the event it rains heavily given conditions won’t be representative of qualifying and the race.
It’s ironic given FP2 has been extended by 30 minutes this weekend to account for a 2023 Pirelli tyre test.
It’ll also make the return of Suzuka particularly difficult for those who haven’t visited in F1 machinery.
Zhou Guanyu, Mick Schumacher, Nicholas Latifi have never raced here in Formula 1. Even local hero Yuki Tsunoda is yet to sample the track in F1 machinery, though he says he knows “a lot of tricks” after cutting what he reckons would be more than 10,000 laps of the track in his junior career.
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Lando Norris, Alex Albon and George Russell have raced here only once before.
Esteban Ocon hasn’t raced here since 2018.
The track is extremely unforgiving for the surprising closeness of the walls and the near ubiquity of the grass and gravel run-off, with asphalt used only at the first turn, Spoon and 130R. Running off the track is always punishing and almost always damaging.
Track time is crucial to confidence, which is essential to being up to speed in time for qualifying and the race.
There’s no time to lose, but the rain might force the issue.
HOW CAN I WATCH IT?
Every practice, qualifying and the race of the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix is live on Kayo and Fox Sports.
FP1 is at 2pm (AEDT) this afternoon ahead of the 90-minute FP2 session at 5pm.
Final practice is at 2pm on Saturday, with qualifying at 5pm.
Pre-race coverage starts at 2:30pm on Sunday before lights out at 4pm.