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How Max Verstappen won the Formula 1 world championship without knowing it

The Dutch driver joked about learning of his triumph after finishing the race. For fans, it was a confusing spectacle after a rain-soaked Grand Prix at the Suzuka Circuit in Japan.
Image: F1 Grand Prix of Japan
Max Verstappen of the Netherlands celebrates Sunday with his team, Oracle Red Bull Racing, after winning the F1 Grand Prix of Japan at the Suzuka International Racing Course. Clive Mason / Getty Images

Max Verstappen clinched his second Formula 1 world championship on Sunday in a chaotic and rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix.

But in a dramatic twist, the Red Bull Racing driver took the checkered flag without realizing what he had achieved.

It wasn't until the post-race imposition of a penalty for his nearest rival, Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, and a decision by the officials to award full points for the shortened race that the confusion turned to clarity and the Dutch driver's title victory was cemented.

"To be honest, I don’t mind that it was a little bit confusing," Verstappen told reporters. "I find it actually quite funny."

The result puts Verstappen an insurmountable 113 points clear of the competition with four races to go. His win at the Suzuka Circuit continues a dominant run in the 2022 season for the 25-year-old racer, who is already drawing comparisons to the all-time greats in the sport. The race was temporarily halted by a red flag after two laps due to heavy rain and a frenzied start.

Image: F1 Grand Prix of Japan
Max Verstappen (1) leads Charles Leclerc (16) during the F1 Grand Prix of Japan on Sunday. Clive Mason / Getty Images

Leclerc crossed the line in second place, but the Monegasque was handed a five-second penalty for cutting the final chicane in a battle with Red Bull’s other driver, Sergio Perez, which dropped him to third. Even then, Verstappen said he didn’t think he had won the championship because the race hadn't completed full distance.

“Once I crossed the line, I was like, ‘OK, that was an amazing race. Good points again, but not World Champion yet.’ Then I did my interview after the race. And then suddenly my mechanics started to cheer and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then I realized that Checo (Perez) was second instead of Charles. But I still didn’t know if it was full points, half points or whatever is 75%,” Verstappen said.

An official “came to me and he said that I was the world champion. So then we celebrated,” Verstappen continued. “And then suddenly people were telling me, ‘No, you’re still missing a point.' So it was like, ‘Oh, that’s amazing. That’s a bit weird.’ But then eventually we had enough points so then we were world champion again.”

In the immediate aftermath of the race, fans and analysts on social media criticized the uncertainty surrounding the new rule, which was established this year. It imposes a multitiered points system after complaints over a rained-out race in Belgium last year, which resulted in points being awarded after two laps behind a safety car, despite a lack of meaningful race-day competition.

Image: F1 Grand Prix of Japan
Charles Leclerc finished third Sunday in the F1 Grand Prix of Japan.Clive Mason / Getty Images

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky F1 that the team was poring over the rules after the race and expected Verstappen to fall just short of clinching the title.

“We were under the strong impression that only with 75% of the race completed would full points be scored,” Horner said. “So we felt we were going to be one point short.”

The FIA has suggested it will review the rule, according to Sky F1.

Verstappen offered his opinion during the post-race briefing.

“These are really complex situations with the weather, the amount of laps. And then, of course, there’s a difference between if you finish the race or the race gets red-flagged early on and then you can’t continue. And there is of course, a difference between the two," he said. "So yeah, I do think that if you don’t write enough rules, it’s not good. If you write too many rules, also not good. It’s always really hard to find a middle ground, I think.”

Image: Winner Red Bull Racing's Dutch driver Max Verstappen and teammate second-placed Red Bull Racing's Mexican driver Sergio Perez and third-placed Ferrari's Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc on the podium after the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, Mie prefecture on Oct. 9, 2022.
Winner Max Verstappen, second from right, with teammate Sergio Perez (second from left) and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc on the podium after the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP - Getty Images

Verstappen won his first world championship last year after a thrilling last-lap showdown with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton in the last race of a neck-and-neck title fight. But this year Verstappen has handily defeated his competitors and his back-to-back championship has been widely expected for weeks, if not months. It was just a matter of when he would clinch it.

It marks a generational moment for Formula 1 with the rise of Gen Z drivers like Verstappen, Leclerc, McLaren's Lando Norris and Mercedes' George Russell changing the face of the sport. The three other champions on the grid — Hamilton, Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel and Alpine's Fernando Alonso — have been scrapping in the midfield in less competitive cars this year.

Vettel, a four-time champion, is retiring after this year. Alonso is leaving Alpine to take his seat at Aston Martin.

On Monday, one day after the race in Japan, the sport's governing body announced its long-anticipated findings about the budget cap, finding that Red Bull committed a "procedural" breach and "minor financial overspend" of less than 5% over the cap in 2021. Aston Martin were found to be in "procedural" breach as well. Officials did not say what punishments would be assessed for the violations.

The next Formula 1 race is scheduled for Oct. 23 in Austin, Texas. The American audience for the sport has grown rapidly in recent years, and the 2023 calendar adds a grand prix in Las Vegas, in addition to races in Miami and Austin.

Leclerc, who started off the season in strong form but has since been hampered by Ferrari strategy failures and driver errors, said he hopes to finish the year strong and come back fighting in 2023.

“A huge congratulations to Max and to Red Bull. They’ve done an incredible job this year. Yeah, Max has just been incredible and it’s a title fully deserved,” Leclerc said after the race. “And on our side, we’ll try to push for the last four races this season to improve as a team and to hopefully put more of a challenge next year.”