By: Jocelyn Knorr
The evening was a rainy one; the race had been red-flagged for so long that the sun was starting to go down. The grandstands were only sparsely populated, cold or hunger beating out excitement. And, unbeknownst to him, Max Verstappen had just won the Suzuka Grand Prix.
So, how did this happen, anyways?
Let’s back it up a bit. Suzuka is a racetrack in Japan, carrying the name of the city it was built in. It’s known for it’s figure-eight track and calm atmosphere—Japanese fans tend to be calm and polite. To illustrate my point, there were no orange flares with the usual Verstappen crowd in sight last week. Plenty of fun hats, though! Notable examples include rear wings, onboard cameras, and one miniature AlphaTauri—with working wheels! Thirteen World Driver’s Championships have now been decided there, including Sunday’s.
This track in particular is a very special place for Max Verstappen; the Dutchman made his F1 debut there, as a Practice 1 driver for what is now AlphaTauri. That made him the youngest driver ever in F1, at 17 years and 3 days. He will hold that record for the rest of F1’s history—the FiA, the international authority for most motorsport, no longer hands out Super Licenses to those under 18.
Verstappen has since experienced a meteoric rise; the 25-year-old is now under contract with Red Bull Racing until 2028. He won his first championship in 2021, after a long, brutal fight with Mercedes driver, and 7-time WDC, Lewis Hamilton, and now has 33 race wins under his belt. 13 of those are from this season alone; he’s won more races in 2022 than anyone else put together.
Sunday’s race had only gone two laps before being stopped due to heavy weather. This is fairly standard—a race was even called off entirely in 2020 due to inclement conditions that could have put the drivers at risk of death—even if Japan does have a tendency towards caution when it comes to suspensions and delays.
It took two hours to get the cars back out on track. As the FiA has imposed a three-hour event limit on racing events, the remaining 18 drivers—Albon’s radiator failed on lap 1 and Sainz spun into the barriers on lap 2—only had 42 minutes to the checkered flag. Verstappen qualified second, after Charles Leclerc, but managed to pull ahead before the red flag.
Because of the rain, race control implemented a rolling start behind the safety car so that the drivers could get used to the conditions. When the safety car left, Verstappen pulled ahead again, and remained there for the rest of the race.
So, how did Verstappen end up winning the Championship without his knowledge?
Well, let’s refocus. After the 2021 Belgium Grand Prix was canceled due to inclement weather, the FiA installed a points system for shortened Grands Prix, rather than awarding full points as was done on that occasion. If less than 25% of the race is completed, 6 points are awarded to the winner, 4 to the person in second place, and 3 to the person in third; if over 25%, but less that 50%, is completed, the points awarded are 13-10-8, and if 50%-75% is completed, the points awarded are 19-14-12. Anything over 75%, points are awarded as usual.
As the race progressed, it was looking more and more like we would end with slightly under 75% of the race completed—with 19 points earned, Verstappen would win the Grand Prix but not the championship. Then, Charles Leclerc, who had been fighting with Checo Perez, overtook the Red Bull driver off-track on the last lap. A five-second time penalty and demotion was handed out to Leclerc post race. This 5-second penalty pushed us over the 75% mark, allowing full points to be awarded.
Verstappen finished the race in first, but was under the impression that he still needed one more point to win the championship. He remained that way through post-race interviews, only to find out in the cool down room, via a door labeled “Reserved for World Champion.”
So, what does this mean for the season going forward? The next race is in Austin, on the 22nd, and though the Championship is decided, there’s more fun to be had. For example, what of the Constructors? Red Bull Racing hasn’t won the Constructors since 2013, narrowly missing out on it in 2021. There’s also the second place to be decided, Leclerc and Perez separated by only one point, not to mention Alpine and McLaren’s race for top of the midfield.
So, a very warm congratulations to Max Verstappen on his 2nd WDC, and don’t stop watching the season yet! The very best is still to come.
UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, the Austin race has been decided. Max won again, and Red Bull won the Constructors. Second place is still up in the air, making the next race, in Mexico City, important to those still in the hunt.