JAPAN: The long-awaited Japanese GP was touted as the venue where Max Verstappen would claim his 2nd driver’s championship.
The Dutchman did just that, but that wasn’t before the FIA shocked teams and fans alike with some questionable decision-making, including deploying a recovery vehicle while the race track was still active and a penalty for Ferrari driver and Max Verstappen’s nearest competitor, Charles Leclerc.
The paddock was expecting a dry race after yesterday’s dry and bright conditions, but nature had different plans as the heavens opened up over Suzuka and drenched the entire circuit.
Even though the track had driveable conditions except for a few “rivers” flowing across the track at the exit of turns 2 and 3, visibility played a crucial factor in the race throughout.
The safety car was deployed on the first lap itself after Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz aquaplaned in his pursuit of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and crashed out of the race. His car spun and crashed into the barrier before sliding slightly onto the track. Further behind, Alex Albon suffered an engine failure and had to retire his car.
Sebastian Vettel, who started 9th in his final Japanese GP, made contact with Fernando Alonso in the first corner and had a spin. He re-joined in the bottom part of the standings. Pierre Gasly, who started from the pitlane, collected a piece of advertising board that became dislodged from the barriers as a result of Carlos’ crash and found its way onto the track.
The board got lodged on his front wing and massively affected his visibility. He made a quick pitstop to change the front wing of his AT03 and set off to catch the safety car queue.
While lap 1 was carnage in itself, more chaos was set to follow. The session was red-flagged and a tractor was deployed to recover Carlos Sainz’s car.
The speeding car of Pierre Gasly encountered the recovery vehicle, which brought back horrific flashbacks of the 2014 Japanese GP, where the car of Jules Bianchi had spun off track in similarly wet conditions and hit a recovery vehicle. Jules Bianchi suffered grievous head injuries and succumbed to them a year later.
The FIA faced massive backlash from fans and drivers alike regarding the deployment of a recovery vehicle while the race car was still on track.
Carlos Sainz, in an interview during the red flag, was quoted as saying: “I still don’t know why in these conditions we keep risking having a tractor on-track, because it’s just worthless. If you’re going to red flag it anyway, why risk it? ” McLaren driver, Lando Norris, took to social media to condemn the incident.
Pierre Gasly was summoned to the steward’s office to investigate the incident. After the conclusion of the race, he was given a 20-second penalty and 2 penalty points on his super license, which was again seen by many as the FIA not taking accountability for the incident.
The following former F1 driver and current F1 commentator on his social media handle had the following to say regarding the whole incident.
The race wasn’t resumed until well over 2 hours had passed and the rain weakened into a slight drizzle. The race was resumed behind the safety car and the teams were instructed to use extreme wet tyres for the restart.
The safety car came into the pits after 3 laps and Max Verstappen led away from the pack as a few drivers decided to switch their tyres to intermediate wets. Soon after, the entire pack followed suit, and the pit lane saw a flurry of activity.
The drivers who had pitted earlier made-up positions as outgoing Sebastian Vettel, who found himself at the back of the pack at the first start, was now in a points-scoring position, along with William’s driver Nicholas Latifi, who scored his first points of the 2022 season.
More drama followed towards the end of the Japanese GP as Charles Leclerc, who was 25+ seconds behind the race leader, Max Verstappen, while struggling for grip on his worn-down intermediate tyres, was being caught by Sergio Perez.
Under immense pressure from the Mexican, Charles made an error in the last lap. Going into the penultimate chicane, he braked too late and had to cut the corner as Max Verstappen took the chequered flag and won the Japanese GP.
As the cars were on their cool-down laps, the stewards gave Charles Leclerc a 5-second time penalty for the incident, which relegated him to 3rd position behind Sergio Perez.
This was met with criticism from the Ferrari team principal, who expressed disappointment over his driver not being given a chance to explain himself, similar to the opportunity given to Redbull’s Sergio Perez in the previous GP, where he was found guilty of having breached a safety car regulation twice but was let off with a reprimand for the first offence and a 5-second penalty for the second offense.
In the post-race interview, Mattia Binotto said: “I have little desire to comment. I think the choice of the FIA is ridiculous and unacceptable. In the last race, it took an infinite time to decide, while today it took a few seconds. There was no advantage gained by Charles [in the last lap incident]. [… We will talk about it in the appropriate places, but this decision taken without even listening to drivers is unacceptable as there was no advantage gained. Today it took them a moment to give the penalty to Leclerc. Three hours in Singapore with Perez, the poor guy who couldn’t even follow the safety car. Two identical infractions, but different penalties.”
The title battle seemed to proceed to the next race to be held in Austin a fortnight later. But in a shocker from the race control, full points were awarded for the rain-truncated race, which effectively meant that Max Verstappen led the driver’s championship by 113 points-just enough to seal the title in his favour.
No lessons seemed to be learned from last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, where the drivers were awarded half points in a race that saw no racing action other than two laps behind the safety car.
Even though the regulations were modified for the 2022 season and the Japanese GP was intended to award half points since the race hadn’t gone beyond 75% of the full race distance, Everybody, including the newly crowned world champion, Max Verstappen, was shocked as the news was announced in real-time during the post-race interview by the commentator, Johnny Herbert.
The fans found the FIA decision-making questionable as it remains to be seen if Ferrari will appeal to overturn the last lap penalty and take the championship battle to the next race in Austin or if Max Verstappen will retain his second title mired in controversy.
Interestingly, the race stewards’ team for the Japanese GP featured a couple of officials from the highly controversial 2021 Abu Dhabi GP, which saw Lewis Hamilton being stopped from creating history and enabled the crowning of Max Verstappen as the first Dutchman to win the F1 drivers’ championship.