There were so many things happening in the Japanese Grand Prix that any one of them alone would’ve been enough for a week of post-race discussion.
There was the wet-weather start and the subsequent crashes. Then the breakdown in safety protocols that had a truck sent onto the track with cars still circulating sent the entire paddock into a justifiable meltdown. The management of the restart then became the story, as did the stewards awarding Charles Leclerc a post-race penalty. Even the points system itself came under scrutiny in the final minutes.
But eventually one story emerged to trump them all: Max Verstappen was a two-time world champion.
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The Dutchman is making a habit of winning titles in high-profile fashion, and though nothing — hopefully — will ever top the acrimony of his first championship in 2021, the high drama of his second crown at least ensures it’ll be a memorable one.
VERSTAPPEN WINS THE TITLE WITH SUPERLATIVE PERFORMANCE
Despite the utter chaos that surrounded the race — the weather, the safety controversy, the restart, the post-race penalty, the points uncertainty — nothing can be taken away from Max Verstappen, who dominated the race with an ice-cold display of domination.
The Japanese Grand Prix featured 22 racing laps after the first six spent behind the safety car. He won by 27 seconds at the flag, and advantage of 1.2 seconds per lap.
That’s an even greater advantage than he had over the field at the full-distance Belgian Grand Prix in dry conditions.
When they say that rain is a great leveller, they mean that car differences tend to mean less in the wet and that driver skill tends to come to the fore. Given the 20 drivers in Formula 1 are all generally pretty good, competition between them is supposed to be closer when the heavens open.
But then here’s 25-year-old Max Verstappen running rings around the competition — even coming close to lapping the field despite the grand prix running only around half distance.
Look no further that his sublime defence of pole after a tardy start relative to Leclerc. The Monegasque was ahead on the racing line into the first corner, but Verstappen’s gutsy move around the outside won him back the place into the esses — not a feat for the faint-hearted.
It was a perfect performance encapsulating his one-sided championship campaign.
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As much as it’s tempting to write off this season as one thrown away by Ferrari, Verstappen’s sparkling form puts beyond doubt that he can own this triumph. You only need to consider that Perez and Leclerc are roughly equal on points to understand it’s not just the car or team making the difference in the title fight.
Here in Japan was the ultimate example of it. A delayed race, treacherous conditions and everything to lose, and Verstappen still dominated.
That’s just the story of the season.
POINTS CONFUSION COLOURS POST-RACE CELEBRATIONS
But even after Verstappen crossed the line there was significant confusion about whether he’d done enough to claim the championship given the points permutations of the shortened race, which just ticked over to lap 28 — a touch over half-distance — when he took the chequered flag.
There was even much dismay when post-race interviewer Johnny Herbert announced Verstappen had won the title, with the teams, drivers, commentators and even much of the media believing the points weren’t yet in his favour.
The confusion stems from last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, where two laps behind the safety car qualified as a ‘race’, allowing half-points to be awarded in farcical scenes.
The FIA subsequently changed the rules to ensure lap shad to be completed under green flags to qualify a race for points and also created a new points rubric, whereby a sliding scale of points is a warded based on whether 25 per cent, 50 per cent or 75 per cent of the race has been completed.
With only half the race distance finished when the chequered flag flew in Japan given the time-certain finish required to beat sunset, most assumed Verstappen was on for only 19 points rather than the full 25 — which means even with Leclerc’s penalty he couldn’t open enough of a gap to seal the deal.
“During the race I had no clue what they were going to decide with the points,” Verstappen said. “Then I did the interview after the race and then suddenly my mechanics started to cheer, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’.
“But I still didn’t know if it was full points or half points or whatever.
“But then of course … Tom [Wood, FIA head of communications] came to me and he said that I was the world champion. So then we celebrated.
“But then suddenly people were telling me, ‘No, you’re still missing a point’. It’s like, that’s amazing, it’s a bit weird.”
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The regulations are very clear — even if arguably no in their intended spirit — that partial points only apply in cases of a race being called off, not a race starting late and finishing early. It’s fundamentally the same rule as in previous years, with just the percentages for laps completed added for this season.
It can be boiled down to a simple maxim: chequered flag equals full points.
“Eventually we had enough points, so then we were world champion again!” Verstappen said with a laugh.
“To be honest I don‘t mind that it was a little bit confusing, I find it actually quite funny!”
TITLE-DECIDING PENALTY RANKLES FERRARI
But it wasn’t the points rubric that decided the championship in Japan; it was the post-race penalty to Leclerc that put Verstappen in a winning position and contributed to the unusual scenes of the Dutchman being told live on television that he’d claimed the crown.
Leclerc spent the last five laps defending against Perez to hold second place, with Verstappen long gone up the road.
But on the final lap of the race, with the chequered flag in sight, Leclerc made a mistake and ran off the track at the final chicane.
He rejoined, by cutting the chicane, thereby keeping position ahead of Perez — just. The Mexican had to pull out of a move around his outside, and they crossed the flag second and third.
The stewards took exception to Leclerc running off track and deemed he gained an unfair advantage and punished him by reversing the pair’s places on the podium, thereby giving Verstappen the points advantage he needed to put his title lead beyond reach.
But despite it appearing clear cut, Ferrari wasn’t happy with the way the FIA dealt with the situation that put the final nail in the coffin of its leading man.
“Very disappointed,” Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto said. “I’m surprised there were such different behaviours between Singapore and here after only a few days.”
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Binotto’s argument was that it took the stewards hours to hand Perez a fairly lenient punishment for breaking safety car rules in last week when a quick penalty would have given Leclerc a chance to close the gap to the Mexican and capitalise on the penalty, but in Japan they refused to heard evidence from either driver before judgment.
“The five-second penalty of Singapore should have been given immediately, which would have given us the opportunity to manage certainly a lot differently the situation, and it could have been a potential victory.
“Certainly I think it is very frustrating to see very different timings in decisions seven days after. And at least in such a situation why are you not listening to the drivers while you are doing it in Singapore?
“Was the decision of a five-second penalty (to Leclerc in Japan) right or wrong? In our view, honestly, he didn’t gain any advantage. He was ahead, he stayed ahead. He’s got a gap, he kept the same gap. Still arguable, but that’s the way they decided, which we will accept.
“Somehow frustrating. I am disappointed by that as well.”
WAS THE RACE STARTED IN DANGEROUS CONDITIONS?
The opening to the Japanese Grand Prix can be described as chaotic at best and dangerously shambolic at worst.
The problems with the behaviour of the safety car and the recovery truck in the immediate aftermath of the crash-strewn first lap have been well ventilated and will continue to reverberate for months until the FIA completes an investigation into the events and comes up with appropriate rule changes.
But even the start itself has come under question given the sketchiness of the conditions.
There are two separate, distinct elements taken into account when considering whether a track is safe to race on wet.
The first is pure grip. If the circuit is simply too slippery for the tyres or features too much standing waters for the tyres to safety handle, it’s unsafe to race on.
But the second is visibility from the spray kicked up by the cars as they circulate on wet tyres.
Both were clearly a problem at the race start.
Carlos Sainz was pretty much blameless in his spin at the exit of the hairpin when his car simply aquaplaned running over too much water for the tyres to handle.
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But the spray was arguably a bigger problem, with several drivers saying it was too thick for the race to have started.
“I was very surprised they started the race, because the visibility was so, so bad,” said Valtteri Bottas, who started 12th on the grid. “The race should have not started.
“Even on the second start (the rolling restart) I’m pretty sure that from P6 or P7 back it was quite difficult.”
Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto said the race should have started behind the safety car rather than on the grid to reduce the risk.
“I think behind the safety car would have been certainly safer, and safety should be always put at first position.”
“Maybe by starting behind the safety car you give you at least a couple of laps to understand the situation, have the feedback from the driver before deciding to go for it.”
There have been suggestions in the paddock that there was an impetus to start the race to get at least some laps on the board before the worst of the weather arrived, as it eventually did, to avoid the sport potentially leaving Japan without racing at all.
Given the lack of visibility was a key complaint of drivers at the more controversial incident with the recovery truck on track during the safety car intervention, that hasty decision-making could have resulted in a far more serious outcome than a damage repair bill for a couple of teams.
The start procedure should trigger some serious reflection inside race control.
ARE PIRELLI’S TYRES UP TO THE TASK?
An extension of the above is that Pirelli’s full-wet tyres are a constant sort of dissatisfaction among the drivers for their lack of performance.
It’s not uncommon, for example, to see race starts delayed until the track is just about ready for the intermediate rubber given driver feedback during safety car periods or before the race is that there’s too much rain on the track for the full wets to handle.
Verstappen was at the forefront of the debate in Suzuka, having had the most to lose by making wrong strategy call early at the restart.
“I don’t want to take a dig at anyone, but I think we need better rain tyres,” he said.
“If you saw what we could do in the 1990s or the early 2000s with the amount of water on the track … we need better rain tyres, because I think the extremes are just slow and they can’t really carry a lot of water away.
“You could see from one to the other lap we went from the extreme to the inter today and we went immediately five seconds — at least — faster, and that is just too big.
“That’s why nobody really wants to run that extreme, and when it rained like it did when the red flag came out, if you would’ve have put extreme tyres on, I think it would still be really difficult to drive, but then if you compare that to 20 years ago, that would’ve been perfectly fine.
“So there must be a solution.”
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To be fair to Pirelli, it’s been historically difficult to meet Formula 1 and the teams’ demands for tyre performance and degradation, and regular in-season testing has now been eliminated from the F1 calendar. Wet-weather testing is also obviously difficult to organise given few tracks have sprinklers, and even then conditions are artificial.
Moreover, this year’s tyres were created based purely on data given to Pirelli by the teams about how they expected the new-generation cars to perform, with no real-world testing possible.
But it’s also true to say problems with the full wet have been long running in the Pirelli era — just another lesson from a chaotic Japanese Grand Prix.