SUZUKA, Japan — It wasn’t until Max Verstappen was about to walk onto the podium that he knew for certain he was a double world champion.
He’d been told he’d won this year’s title shortly after getting out of his car and completing his first post-race interview, but he didn’t quite believe it. Then his own Red Bull engineers, who are among the sharpest minds in the sport, advised him he was still one point short, meaning he’d have to finish tenth or higher at the next round in Austin to clinch it there.
But the initial calculations by Red Bull (and the vast majority of the paddock) had not taken into account the exact wording of Article 6.5 of the FIA Sporting Regulations. Along with pretty much everyone else, Verstappen believed he would be awarded a reduced points score of 19 for the victory in Suzuka because the race had run to just 28 of the planned 53 laps. That would only give him a seven point advantage over nearest his rival Charles Leclerc, who had been demoted to third by a post-race penalty, and he needed eight to make his second title a mathematical certainty.
But on closer inspection of the wording of the sporting regulations, it became clear that the awarding of scaled-down points only comes into play if a shortened race “cannot be resumed” after it has stopped. Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix had been red flagged for two hours due to heavy rain, but had then resumed before it eventually ran up against the three-hour maximum time limit in which a race can take place. Technically speaking, it had resumed and therefore full points should be awarded.
In the rapidly fading light at Suzuka it suddenly dawned on Formula One that it had just crowned a new champion. Even engineers at rival teams were scanning through copies of the sporting regulations to double check the news that was now being broadcast by F1 around the world, but when Verstappen reached the podium to be receive his trophy and be interviewed by 2009 world champion Jenson Button, there was no longer any doubt.
“To be honest I don’t mind that it was a little bit confusing, I find it actually quite funny!” Verstappen said of the unusual course of events. “Because at the end of the day it’s not going to change the result.
“When I crossed the line [and Leclerc was still second] it was anyway not enough even if you give full points, in that scenario it wouldn’t have changed anything.”
While it all seemed rather absurd, it was also somewhat academic given the overwhelming inevitability of Verstappen’s title success this year. What’s more, it paled in comparison with last year’s controversy in Abu Dhabi, when certain clauses in the regulations were ignored — rather than strictly followed – by then race director Michael Masi to give Verstappen his shot at clinching the championship on the final lap.
The confusion over how many points would be awarded on Sunday was rooted in the adverse reaction to last year’s Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps. On that day, only two full laps were completed behind the safety car due to extreme weather conditions, yet half points were still handed out to the top ten finishers.
In the aftermath of the farcical “race”, a rule change was introduced by the FIA that was intended to guarantee at least two racing laps (without a safety car) had to be completed for any points to be handed out. The points attribution would then be scaled up depending on how much of the race was completed, with full points only handed out if 75 percent of the distance was completed. On that scaled formula, a race that runs a distance between 50 percent and 75 percent — the bracket Sunday’s race appeared to fall into — would see points for the top ten drivers, including 19 for the win, 14 for second place and 12 for third.
But within those regulations the FIA left the “cannot be resumed” clause in place, which had previously existed in the sporting regulations but never come into play as races are far more often abandoned due to poor weather than put on hold and restarted. It created a loophole that wasn’t intended to remain in the regulations but ultimately led to Sunday’s confusion.
“I think actually when you read the regulations, what was supposed to be fixed following Spa is unspecified in the regs, so unexpectedly we won!” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said. “It was the most amazing finish and almost against expectations.
“The expectation, even on the pit wall, was that we’ve got one point to go and get in Austin, but as it transpired we’d got more than enough points.
Asked if the rule would be tweaked for the future, Horner said: “I’m sure it will be.
“I think it’s a mistake and the regulations after Spa last year haven’t been mopped up, because we were under the strong impression that only after 75 percent of the race points would be scored.”
Verstappen hits new heights
But the confusion in the aftermath of the race takes nothing away from Verstappen’s achievement. Despite the reduced distance, his performance on Sunday was utterly dominant and featured one of the bravest defences of a position seen this season as he ran the outside line around a soaking wet first corner to keep Leclerc at bay on the opening lap of the race.
“He got a terrible start but then he went for the old karting line around the outside and he was fully committed,” Horner said. “I talked to him in the break [before the race restarted] and he just said, ‘look, I was going for it’, and Charles gave him enough space and he made the move. It was great racing.”
It’s easy to look at Verstappen’s recent dominance, both in Japan and the run of five victories from the French Grand Prix in July to the Italian Grand Prix in September, and assume the title was never in doubt. Yet after three rounds this year he had a 46-point deficit to Leclerc and had suffered two retirements in three rounds. Verstappen’s remarkable ability to grind out results is almost taken for granted at this stage of his career, but what stood out at the start of the season was how calm he remained as his main title rival racked up a significant lead.
“There’s maybe a day where you’re a bit upset or two days, but then you’re on calls, and talking to people about what can we do? What can we fix and how do we move forward?” Verstappen said. “And you get to the next race, and everyone is smiling again and we all have the same goals.
“So that’s the thing, the nice part of the team. You always stay quite neutral in success and disappointments. Because I think at the end of the day, that works best because, you have to just keep being focused. Of course, you know, now, it’s amazing, winning all these races and winning the championship.
“But then tomorrow, you wake up, like, ‘we still need to win a few more’. That’s just the mentality within the team.”
Horner believes Verstappen’s approach to setbacks this year is linked to the pressure that was lifted when he beat Lewis Hamilton to win his first title last year.
“I think last year was such a heavyweight bout between two champions, and I think having won the championship last year, it releases a lot,” he said. “It just takes that pressure and expectation off his shoulders and he’s just gone out and smashed it out the park this year.”
Yet Verstappen’s neutrality through ups and downs this season should not be confused with a lack of passion or commitment. At the Singapore Grand Prix one week ago, he was furious when his team sent him out in qualifying without enough fuel to complete his final pole position attempt. In drying conditions, Verstappen had the pace to easily secure pole, but was ordered to back out of his first proper attempt and then called into the pits on his second. He was so angry that he decided to skip his engineering briefing the same night, saying “there wouldn’t have been much use to talk”.
With his title success very much an inevitability even in Singapore, Verstappen could have just shrugged off his team’s mistake. But that’s not in his nature. A lost shot at victory still hurts almost as much as it did at the start of the season, and he was then even more determined to return to the track in Japan and resume his dominance. The same is likely to apply in the final four rounds, in which Verstappen, who has now scored 12 wins this year, could break the record for the number of race victories in a season, which currently stands at 13.
“There is no real pressure anymore but I still want to of course try and win more races,” he said on Sunday evening. “Because with the car we have now, you have to try and take advantage of that.
“You don’t know if you’re ever going to have that again, next year, in the years to come. So, we’ll definitely try to win a few more.”
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