Max Verstappen was the dominant driver of the 2022 season and it was just a matter of time before he was going to be crowned a world champion for the second time in his career.
Yet, that solemn moment of him sealing the title was mired in confusion after he won the truncated Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka in commanding fashion, 27 seconds ahead of his team-mate Sergio Perez, who finished second.
In what should have been an exciting moment as he crossed the finish line, Verstappen and his team were not sure if he had sealed the drivers’ championship until former F1 driver Johnny Herbert, who was conducting the post-race interviews with the podium finishers, conveyed the message to him on the live broadcast.
The confusion was due to the circumstance surrounding how many points were going to be awarded. But before we get there, it is important to understand how the sport found itself in this peculiar situation. For Verstappen to seal the title in Japan, he needed to have a lead of 112 points over his nearest rival.
Going into the race, the defending champion had a 104-point lead over Charles Leclerc and 106 over Perez.
The race started on time in wet conditions but was red-flagged within minutes due to heavy rain after three laps, two of which were behind the Safety Car following Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz’s crash.
When racing resumed a few hours later, it became a timed race with just about 42 minutes left on the clock.
Verstappen led from the front and pulled away from Leclerc and Perez. He was in a league of his own, lapping a second quicker than anyone on the grid as he bounced back in style after a disappointing Singapore Grand Prix the previous weekend where he finished seventh.
Around the Marina Bay Street Circuit, where he had his first chance to win the title, Verstappen had a poor qualifying due to a team error before finishing seventh in a race which was won by his team-mate Perez ahead of the Ferrari drivers of Leclerc and Sainz.
In Suzuka, Leclerc had no answer to Verstappen’s pace and started falling behind him just as Perez in the second Red Bull was closing in. In the final few laps, the Mexican driver tried his best to overtake Leclerc but was not able to
On the final lap, in the final chicane, Leclerc ran wide and cut the corner to stay ahead of Perez while crossing the line. The FIA promptly gave Leclerc a five-second race penalty for gaining an advantage by going off-track and demoted him behind Perez to third.
It was this decision that sealed the deal for Verstappen as it helped him score 10 points more than Leclerc.
But even with the Ferrari driver finishing third, it was not clear to Verstappen or Red Bull that he had become champion because everyone had misunderstood how many points were going to be awarded. For full points to be awarded, 75% of the scheduled race distance has to be completed.
As only 28 out of the 53 laps or just above 50% of the race distance was covered, but less than 75%, it was believed only 19 points would be given to the winner as per the new rules for truncated races.
Had that been the case, Verstappen would have only been 111 points ahead of Leclerc, who would have got 12 points for finishing third.
The FIA, though, stated that Article 6.5 of the Sporting Regulations which deals with the new staggered points system applied only “if a race is suspended in accordance with Article 57, and cannot be resumed”.
Since the race was resumed after the red flag, the full 25 points were awarded irrespective of the total race distance.
This meant, after his 12th win of the season Verstappen had an unassailable 113-point lead over his nearest rival Perez and 114 over Leclerc and thus became the 17th member of an elite club of drivers to have won multiple titles.
Just like his first title win in Abu Dhabi last year, where race control’s mishandling of the Safety Car procedures allowed Verstappen overtake Lewis Hamilton on the last lap to win the crown created controversy and confusion, his second title, too, left everyone poring over the Sporting Regulations document. However, this should not take the focus away from one of the most dominant campaigns produced by a driver in recent history.
Verstappen has been in peerless form throughout the year winning 12 out of the 18 races and finishing outside the podium only twice so far.
The fact that he has sealed the title with four races left in the season despite retiring in two of the first three races shows the level of dominance.
At the start of the year, even when the car was not to his liking, he managed to eke out some impressive results. But once his team brought developments and made the car suit his driving style, the 25-year-old went on a dream run winning five consecutive races.
He often produced sensational drives coming from way back down the grid to win the race easily as he did in Hungary (starting 10th), Belgium (starting 14th) and Italy (starting 7th).
There have always been asterisks attached to his first world title due to what happened in Abu Dhabi last year and there was a widespread feeling that Hamilton was robbed of his title more than Verstappen won it.
Verstappen has now put it beyond any reasonable doubt that he is going to be Formula One’s lodestar in the coming years. Ever since he burst onto the scene in 2015, he was tipped to be the next big star of the sport and become a world champion but at the same time also had some rough edges that needed sharpening. He would often crash into others or walls and wasted his prodigious pace.
Since the second half of the 2018 season, he matured to become a more consistent driver without mistakes, while maintaining the searing pace that made him special, but did not have the car to fight for the title in 2019 and 2020.
Over the last two years, as Red Bull Racing finally produced cars capable of fighting for titles, Verstappen was fully developed, ready and capable of meeting the demand of the moment and has emerged triumphant.
With stable regulations for the next few years, if Red Bull can maintain their performance advantage, we are truly entering the era of Max Verstappen.