Max Verstappen was crowned Formula One world champion in bizarre circumstances following a dominant victory at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday.
It had been a chaotic race, stalled by rain and then restarted, before the chaos continued afterwards with confusion reigning over whether Verstappen had defended his title.
For much of the race, it seemed as if the Red Bull driver would be forced to wait until the next grand prix in Austin to secure the drivers’ title for the second time in his career as the race was red-flagged due to rain.
When the race did begin again, it was much shortened, seemingly leaving less points available, and with Verstappen’s rival Charles Leclerc crossing the line in second, he seemed mathematically still in the title hunt.
So when Verstappen finished, he initially only celebrated a race victory – his 12th of the season – and completed his first post-race interview accordingly.
But Ferrari’s Leclerc had cut the final corner, under pressure from Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez, and incurred a five-second time penalty after the race finished, ending his title challenge.
“Have I or have I not? I am hearing different things,” Verstappen said, after he was initially crowned world champion during a second post-race interview.
It was confirmed again, and he sat down in front of a ‘World Champion’ banner in a throne room.
“I feel a bit lonely,” he said.
Still, the Red Bull driver was not entirely certain of his new status as a two-time world champion, even after the podium celebrations to mark his race victory, as the regulations stipulating the awarding of points in the rain caused confusion.
“Am I the world champion?” Verstappen asked Jensen Button before his interview on the podium.
According to the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, full points, rather than staggered points, could be awarded since the race was resumed after a rain delay, giving Verstappen a 113 point lead in the world championship with only 112 left to win on the track.
The rain fell all afternoon in Suzuka, and spray streamed out the back of the cars when they started for the first time.
Out front, Leclerc challenged Verstappen for pole into the first corner but the defending world champion held his line around the outside to remain in the lead.
Behind them, Ferrari’s Sainz aquaplaned off the road, into the advertising boarding and out of the race, while Williams’ Alex Albon suffered a gearbox failure and was also forced to retire.
Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly picked up debris from Sainz’s crash recovery truck and pitted for a new front wing.
Catching up with the field, he drove past a recovery truck on the track, evoking memories of Jules Bianchi who died after his car hit a recovery truck on this track eight years ago, and prompting anger from drivers and teams alike.
“No respect for the Life of the driver no respect for Jules memory incredible (sic),” Bianchi’s father Philippe said on Instagram.
Gasly later received a 20-second penalty and two penalty points for speeding under red flag conditions. In a statement, the FIA said it had launched a “thorough review of the events.”
Shortly afterwards, the race was stopped and an almost two-hour delay followed, waiting for the conditions to become safer amid pouring rain.
When the race restarted behind a safety car to help clear the track of water, the sky was still overcast and each car trailed a plume of spray behind it.
Several drivers pitted soon after the restart, swapping wet tires for intermediate tires.
Verstappen was among them and once out of the pits, he weaved his way through the field with ease to take the lead again, opening up a four second lead over Leclerc, who initially looked comfortable in second, eight seconds ahead of Perez.
Verstappen’s advantage only widened, reaching first 10 and then 15 seconds over Leclerc, whose attention turned to the car behind as Perez moved within striking distance of the Ferrari towards the end of the race.
On the final corner, Leclerc eventually yielded to Perez’s pressure and locked up on the final chicane of the race, cutting the corner and picking up a five-second penalty that demoted him to third.
Twenty-seven seconds up the road, Verstappen cruised to victory, further confirming his dominance in a season during which he has won 12 of the 18 races.
He only needs one more victory from the remaining four more races to equal the record for most Grand Prix victories won in a single season – currently held by Michael Schumacher in 2004 and Sebastian Vettel in 2013.