Japanese GP: Suzuka was short but sweet
Suzuka is a return to the home of Honda and, for the first time since the global lockdown, the only circuit on the calendar that runs both clockwise and anti-clockwise, a circuit that every driver loves.
All eyes were on Verstappen, who could clinch the championship and, through the process, plant a seed of contemplation for the manufacturer who is pulling out in 2026 that could see them staying. With the news that Nyck De Vries would be joining Alpha Tauri and the fact that Pierre Gasly is set to join Alpine, things are starting to look more sombre for Daniel Ricciardo and Mick Schumacher. They'd need to drive their hearts out for the remainder of the season.
Qualifying was the first time we saw some dry track after a fair amount of rain the previous day. Both Ferraris were quick to keep the Red Bull of Verstappen honest, but it wasn't to be, as the Dutchman ensured another Pole.
There was always going to be the threat of rain on race day, and when the cars went out for their grid formation lap, there was no question whatsoever that it was going to be a wet start. We just never knew how wet. And then eventually, under starters orders with everyone on the intermediate compound, it was green to go.
A rooster-tail frenzy clouded the sky in a haze of water vapour, catching out a few with Carlos Sainz, the biggest loser after losing his Ferrari at Turn 11 after the hairpin as a result of aqua planning. He spun out and was almost swept up by Lewis Hamilton, followed by Pierre Gasly who then did, in a freakish event, collect some advertising board debris from a Rolex advert (poor timing and a bad pun… I know).
What wasn't funny was what happened next, and something that needs to be investigated is the recovery tractor on the circuit after the race was red-flagged involving Pierre Gasly, who passed it at quite a speed. Nightmare flashbacks of what happened in 2014 with Jules Bianchi at the same circuit were nauseating. The fact that, eight years later, it happened again makes a mockery of safety standards implemented over the years. How did they get this so wrong in this modern day?
Rightly so, the verbal onslaught continued from Gasly, and so did the rain, which resulted in a two-hour delay and the chances of Max Verstappen earning full points being drowned out. Eventually, the call came, and a rolling start initiated the restart, with everyone being forced to run on full wets. We had cars racing once more, if only for the next 40 minutes.
Max Verstappen continued his rampant form jetting off into the watery distance with Charles Leclerc chasing. With the track drying up, Verstappen had to pit for intermediate tyres, with Leclerc following suit, not taking any chances with the strategy, it seemed. Control copy and control paste by Ferrari or is the red team finally starting to get it right? I'll let you decide. After that, Verstappen checked out, and that was the last Leclerc saw.
Back out on track, the action ensued. The dicing between Perez and Charles continued to the last lap with some brilliant defensive driving from the Ferrari driver, whose tyres seemed to be eaten up at an exponential rate compared to the Red Bull. After the race in Parc Ferme, Leclerc's front right looked more like a slick than an intermediate and justifying the last corner incident where he locked up and seemed to understeer into the next Grand Prix, missing the corner and then re-joining the circuit before running Perez wide. The infringement was sent straight to race control for investigation. That's where things got weird.
Taking what seemed like an eternity, all indications were that Leclerc was keeping second, and Perez would be third when the announcement was made that Charles Leclerc would be earning himself a five-second penalty for his earlier transgression. Wait?! That meant Max Verstappen would earn enough points to secure the championship. But hold on... Even Verstappen questioned it a few times. Eventually, it was driven home that Max did indeed win the championship, making it two in a row for the Dutchman with a bit of help from Perez, who was all over Leclerc's diffuser like a cheap suit. Release the balloons and pop the champagne!
Some may have thought that the Japanese GP never entirely delivered, but there are a few points of value. The dice between the veterans, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, a fitting swan song ending for the German, earning him the 'driver-of-the-day' accolade. Another was the defensive driving by Esteban Ocon, who pulled every trick out of the race driver's handbook, keeping Lewis Hamilton at bay. What a display of driving! And lastly, the battle between Leclerc and Perez. Three quality moments that made it worth the wait. This age of F1 is delivering the goods. Make no mistake.
With Verstappen's 32 Grand Prix win going down as some of the most casual championship walkovers motorsports have ever seen, we now head to Austin, Texas, for the American Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas and who knows, perhaps an announcement for a certain driver to occupy that Williams seat? It's anyone's guess, but we can expect the usual American fanfare. See you on the 23 October, Hee-Haw.
Words: Brent vd Schyff