Formula One has a new double-champion after Max Verstappen won a heavily-disrupted Japanese Grand Prix. The Red Bull driver had no equal in the changeable conditions to win with a 27-second gap, a feat even more impressive considering the race only ran a little over 50% of its scheduled laps. Much of the post-race discussion centered around the points distribution and whether Verstappen had done enough to seal the title amid the curtailed running, somewhat muting the celebrations on one of the sport's odder days.
As with Singapore one week earlier, rain fell on the track as lights out approached. However, unlike Singapore, the Japanese Grand Prix managed to begin on time with a standing start despite the wet conditions. All racers deemed the intermediate tires would be sufficient to clear any water on the track, but it soon became clear that the choice might've been a little optimistic for some.
Charles Leclerc had a better launch off the line than polesitter Verstappen and was ahead as the pair went into Turn 1. However, Leclerc's early braking allowed Verstappen to surge around the outside to reclaim the lead, leaving the Ferrari driver to slot in behind the Red Bull. Nevertheless, Leclerc did fare better than the sister Ferrari of Carlos Sainz, who didn't make it past the first lap after spinning at the entry of the long-right hand Turn 12.
A chaotic opening lap also saw Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel collide at Turn 1, sending Vettel off backward and into last place, a spin from Guanyu Zhou, and a hydraulics failure for Alex Albon. Pierre Gasly also picked up front wing damage after a bizarre situation where an advertising board lodged itself onto the front of his AlphaTauri, ruining the Frenchman's visibility. Despite it all, only Sainz and Albon retired and would be the only drivers with a DNF in the race.
The subsequent Lap 1 Safety Car turned into a red flag by Lap 2 as the FIA deemed the weather too unsafe to continue. While their cautious approach to driver safety was apparent from their hesitation to continue racing, it was a different story for Gasly. Upon returning to the track after a front wing change, the AlphaTauri driver was furious after driving past a recovery vehicle on the circuit as he caught up to the Safety Car. After the fatal injuries Jules Bianchi sustained in 2015 at the same venue when colliding with a JCB, it seems some haven't learned any lessons, and F1 was fortunate not to have a repeat of the horrific scenes.
With the race having to finish within three hours of lights out, the clock was ticking down through the red flag period, with flashbacks to last year's controversial Belgian Grand Prix coming to the fore. That race ran entirely behind the Safety Car for two laps before concluding. Fortunately, the rain eased up, and after a two-hour delay, a rolling restart followed. The FIA mandated all drivers to run the full wet tire, and amid lots of tire spray, Max Verstappen took over the Safety Car's lead with 40 minutes left on the clock.
The unexpected sprint race immediately became a strategic battle to pick the right tires for the conditions at the right time. With little to lose from the back of the pack, Vettel and Nicholas Latifi went into the pit lane immediately to put on the intermediates. The pair had a short-lived drag race at the pit exit that Vettel won, but their gamble paid off, with both drivers being the quickest on track. Lando Norris and Valtteri Bottas followed suit one lap later. They emerged behind Vettel and Latifi, showing that inters were the best tire, and soon almost everyone else copied the decision.
A double-stack pit stop from Mercedes had George Russell pit behind Lewis Hamilton and lose time and positions, much to the young Brit's annoyance. However, his misfortune led to plenty of overtaking for the patient Japanese fans, who had to wait in the rain for the race to restart. Some brave overtakes on the outside of the esses had Russell finish P8, but he was aggrieved to be three places behind Hamilton after entering the pit lane with only one car separating the Mercedes teammates.
Things weren't much better for Hamilton, who spent his entire race after the pit stops stuck behind Esteban Ocon. Ocon positioned his Alpine perfectly when defending to eventually cross the line in P4, just outside the podium-paying places.
Between Hamilton and Russell were world champions Vettel and Alonso, who collided at the race start but occupied the same tarmac in the closing stages. A risky second pit stop for a new set of inters by Alonso almost had the Spaniard take P6 from his long-time German rival, and only 0.011s separated the pair as they crossed the line.
A more consequential close finish took place at the front, though, after Sergio Perez and Leclerc dueled throughout the final minutes of the race. Perez tried to pass the Monegasque unsuccessfully for several laps but took second place after a five-second penalty for Leclerc. The sole-remaining Ferrari cut the final chicane on the last lap to stay ahead of the Mexican, and the stewards issued Leclerc a swift punishment. His demotion led to Verstappen's points tally becoming insurmountable in the final four rounds. The reigning champion hesitantly celebrated his second championship after being understandably perplexed about what had unfolded.
Verstappen wasn't the only unsure person at Suzuka. With a little over 50% of the race complete, teams, commentators, and drivers scratched their heads regarding the points allocation. However, a tweak to the rules in the wake of the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix meant full points were available by virtue of the clock counting down rather than a red flag stopping proceedings, even though the lap count was so short. An oddly apt end to the strangest Grand Prix of the season, and it is now the second title that Verstappen has won under a cloud of late-race confusion.