Max Verstappen won the Japanese Grand Prix for Red Bull, securing his second Formula One world championship in the process. Sergio Pérez, his teammate, came second on the day and third overall, while Charles Leclerc of Ferrari finished third in the race and second over the season. Esteban Ocon was fourth for Alpine with Lewis Hamilton in fifth for Mercedes.
The race was race delayed for two hours because of rain and finished after only 28 laps – just over half the race’s total distance, so enough to ensure Verstappen was awarded the points he needed. However itrequiredmore last-lap drama to ensure he claimed the title this weekend.
Leclerc had finished second on the track – enough to keep the title-race alive – but was given a five-second penalty for cutting a corner on the final circuit, which meant he and Pérez swapped places.
The day belonged to Verstappen but was also defined by anger from across the grid after a tractor was deployed on track while cars were still circulating.
Verstappen claimed the championship after a dominant season in which he has won 12 of 18 races, including six of the last seven. With the races remaining, he remains inposition to break the record set by Michael Schumacher in 2004 and Sebastian Vettel in 2013, who both took 13 wins. With the title secure it is an eminently achievable goal and would represent a major F1 record for Verstappen. He has become only the third driver to have secured the championship with four or more races remaining – Michael Schumacher took it in 2002 with six to go and Nigel Mansell in 1992 with five, while Sebastian Vettel won with four remaining also at the Japanese GP in 2011.
The race opened in the rain and Verstappen made a slow start but clung on bravely to Leclerc round the outside of turn one to just hold the lead as he entered the esses. However as Carlos Sainz crashed out at the hairpin on the opening lap the safety car was deployed as a slew of drivers struggled with the wet track. As the cars followed the safety car the race was then stopped on lap two to allow vehicles to be recovered and because the rain had become heavier. The incidents caused a terrifying moment for Pierre Gasly who had pitted on the opening lap and was out of sync with the other cars. With the rest of the field behind the safety car a tractor was on track attempting to deal with Sainz’s car. However when Gasly arrived he was not slowed by the safety car, had not been told the tractor was on track and was travelling at pace, although the race had been red-flagged just before he reached the location of the incident.
These were similar circumstances to the accident that befell Jules Bianchi at Suzuka in 2014 and which ultimately led to his death. Bianchi had been circulating in heavy rain under double yellow flags when he went off and hit a recovery vehicle, suffering severe injuries from which he did not recover. His father Phillipe Bianchi was incredulous and angry that a similar risk had been taken again. “No respect for the life of the driver, no respect for Jules’s memory. Incredible,” he posted on social media.
After Bianchi’s accident the FIA introduced a slew of rules intended to prevent it happening again, including forbidding the use of recovery vehicles unless the safety car or a virtual safety car was deployed. In this case the safety car had been deployed. However with Gasly attempting to catch the rest of the pack, he was allowed to drive quicker to do so. He appeared to be doing approximately 200km/h when he passed the tractor just as the race was red-flagged. Given the conditions and with the safety car deployed, a dangerous pace. The tractor nonetheless should not have been deployed until the entire pack had been bunched up and were together, or indeed it could feasibly have waited until the race was red-flagged and all the cars had returned to the pit lane.
The decision to deploy vehicles is understood to be in the hands of the clerk of the course, who knows the circuit and the marshals but control is ultimately responsibility is in the hands of the race director, this weekend Eduardo Freitas. The FIA’s international sporting code is unequivocal on the subject. “No marshal or vehicle shall enter the circuit perimeter without permission from race control,” it reads. The clerk of the course cannot deploy vehicles without permission from race control.
Gasly was furious. “I could have killed myself,” he said on team radio.”What is this tractor? What is this tractor on track? I passed next to it – this is unacceptable. Can’t believe this.”
After just over two hours the cars returned to the track behind the safety car to then resume racing on lap six. Verstappen and Leclerc both swiftly switched to intermediate tyres as conditions improved. Verstappen, however, was in complete control, his lap times hugely impressive given the conditions, quickly putting a full 12 seconds on Leclerc, who was harried to the flag by Pérez and ultimately made the mistake that was crucial.
Verstappen was consistently almost a second lap faster and closed out with ease, a fitting finale for the now double world champion. Vettel was sixth for Aston Martin, Fernando Alonso in seventh for Alpine, George Russell in eighth for Mercedes, Nicholas Latifi ninth for Williams, and Lando Norris tenth for McLaren.