Formula One’s week in Japan started on a positive note. The drivers all spoke about how excited they were to be back. Red Bull hoped Max Verstappen could clinch the driver championship at the home race of their partner, Honda. Some questions around the 2023 grid were finally resolved when Alpine announced Pierre Gasly as a driver for next year and Alpha Tauri signed Nyck De Vries to replace Gasly. But rainy first and second practices proved to be a harbinger of some chaos to come.
The race began with a normal standing start; all cars had intermediate tires to combat a steady rain. But the precipitation seemed to pick up right around the start of the race. It became clear after several spins and a disastrous lack of visibility that it was unsafe to continue and the race was red flagged. Facing waning daylight and the end of the race clock, the stewards finally restarted the grand prix in time to get some laps in. Here’s what stood out in Suzuka.
Immediate reaction: Anticlimactic
After a long night/morning/day in Japan, we finally saw a race in which I’m still not sure how the drivers managed to not run each other over. Some of the in-car shots showing how hindered the drivers’ views were by the spray off the track were insane. In the end, however, we had a pretty anticlimactic ending in which Max Verstappen won easily and then was awarded the championship after the race was over due to a Charles Leclerc penalty.
Driver of the race: Max
If it weren’t for the ultimate result of the championship being clinched, I think Checo Pérez or Esteban Ocon would be good choices for this week after one helped push Leclerc into a mistake and the other held off Lewis Hamilton to finish 4th. Those drives were admirable, but at the end of the day Max has to be the driver of the race as we saw him take care of business and win his second championship, making it two in a row.
Moment of the race: The end
The race was fairly boring once it actually got going; Max got out front and did his thing. However, as the race went to a time limit and we approached the end, there was one thing to watch: could Leclerc stay in front of Checo and keep the championship door open? It looked like that was going to be the case until Leclerc made a mistake in the last couple of corners, going off the track, and ultimately being given a five-second penalty, resulting in a third place finish.
Thoughts moving forward: Now what?
I’m not sure I have many thoughts moving forward, though I am curious to see what this means for the four remaining GPs. Do we see some things being tried by Red Bull? Can Ferrari maintain their mostly consistent performance and hold off Mercedes in the constructors championship? I’m rooting for some chaos and fun, but we’ll see what we actually get.
This is going to be a long one because there was a lot to react to.
The first two laps: This race should not have been started the way it was. It was dangerous and the images of zero visibility for the drivers were a bad look for the FIA. The conditions caused Carlos Sainz to wreck his car, and it was very lucky that no one else hit him while his car was stranded as the field drove by. It felt very avoidable if the race had started either at a different time or under the rolling start procedures.
The recovery vehicle situation: This was the absolute most incompetent look of all for a sport that is currently dealing with a lot of them. I felt awful for Pierre Gasly, who was very close to Jules Bianchi, a driver who died as a result of injuries he sustained in a crash with a recovery vehicle at this very track in 2014. A recovery vehicle should never be on the track when there are active cars around, especially in these difficult conditions. Hauling a broken car off the track can wait a few minutes until it is safe. Lives are literally on the line.
It was also embarrassing that the FIA tried to shift some initial responsibility onto Gasly for speeding when he thought the race was under a safety car and he was trying to catch the pack. If you’re going to make drivers run in situations where the visibility is so poor, you have to know they might not immediately see a red flag light or it might not be safe for them to slam on the brakes right away. This all reminded me of our conversation about the movie “Rush” and Niki Lauda’s lines it in: it comes down to calculated risks. Racing is inherently risky, but there has to be a point where you determine the risks are too high. Putting a recovery vehicle on the track less than two seconds after red flagging a race in heavy rain is an unnecessary risk.
The laps after the red flag: It was very clear that we need better tires for wet weather. The wet tires are so much slower, teams don’t want to run them. They would rather put the cars at risk of hydroplaning than get the grip they need. The intermediate tires do not seem to hold up well over long stretches of race, either. Just a week ago at Singapore, the broadcast admitted there was really no good tire for the race conditions. Until Pirelli can develop better tires for rainy days, the quality of racing is going to suffer.
Ultimately, I feel sorry for the fans in Suzuka who waited years during COVID for F1 to return. The track is beloved by drivers and the crowd was great. It feels like we didn’t get to see the excitement everyone deserved because of the rain, the tires, and the FIA.
Driver of the race
Esteban Ocon held off constant pressure from Lewis Hamilton for probably 20 minutes of the rain-shortened race. It’s not easy to block a seven-time champion for that long, but Ocon never slipped up on his way to a P4 finish — one of the best of the season for a driver not running for Red Bull, Ferrari, or Mercedes. He’s come a long way since being out of F1 after he was replaced at Racing Point by the owner’s son, Lance Stroll. He’s been an important part of Alpine challenging McLaren for fourth-best constructor this season, looking just as competitive as his teammate, Fernando Alonso.
An extra shout out goes to Williams and Nicholas Latifi for making the switch from wet tires to intermediates at just the right time. They earned Latifi his first points of the year, which is likely his last in F1.
Moment of the race
With such a challenging track and rainy race conditions, track position at the start was so important. Max Verstappen started on pole again with Charles Leclerc to the other side. Leclerc got a better start and put himself in a position to lead going into the first turn. But Verstappen used the outside of the corner masterfully to shut the door on Leclerc. From there, he was never really challenged. Leclerc’s Ferrari was much worse on tire wear and Verstappen avoided making any driving mistakes that would allow anyone else to enter the picture.
Thoughts moving forward
The FIA needs to address numerous issues and clarify its rules. Coming into this week, the shadow of the 2021 financial audit hung around after they pushed the deadline to issue certifications back. (If it gets delayed again, I may have more to say on that.)
Then on race day, there was confusion throughout the race surrounding how points would be awarded. Points were a central storyline of the day since Verstappen had a chance to clinch the driver championship, and the Sky Sports broadcast kept showing graphics detailing how many points could be given based on how many laps they were able to fit in. Verstappen was interviewed after the race and told he didn’t clinch the championship yet and then a second time where they told him he was champion. A late penalty on Leclerc also added to the confusion. Understandably, he was unsure even in the cool down room afterward.
It was clarified that full points were awarded, even though only about half of the race length was completed, because the race was able to restart after the red flag. So a race that went longer before being permanently red flagged would be worth fewer points than this race, which went just 28 laps. It’s messy and makes it look like no one knows what they are doing. Maybe this is just jarring for me as a new fan not yet jaded by years of watching ineptitude, but how can you expect people to have confidence in how the rules are administered when this is the result?