10 things we learned at the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix

A crowned champion amid chaos and confusion underpinned the first Formula 1 race in Japan since 2019 - but there was more to the weekend than that, as driver market moves and the popular return of Suzuka were also key threads. Here's a look at the 10 biggest points of interest from the Japanese Grand Prix

10 things we learned at the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix

Max Verstappen clinched what had long been expected with his win at the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix: this year’s drivers’ title crown. It makes him a double world champion at 25 and now he’s close to breaking Formula 1’s record for most wins in a single season, with four events still left to run.

But Verstappen’s title celebrations were overshadowed by the chaos and confusion during and after the wet race last Sunday, which has led to even more questions being raised about the procedures and attitudes of motorsport’s governing body. There was also plenty of intrigue further down the field and off the track too.

Here are the headline takeaways from F1’s first visit back to Suzuka in three years.

Verstappen hugs Adrian Newey after claiming a second F1 world title

Verstappen hugs Adrian Newey after claiming a second F1 world title

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

1. Verstappen is the 2022 champion, sealed with a virtuoso drive

It had been coming ever since Charles Leclerc crashed out of the lead of the French GP: Verstappen was going to be the 2022 world champion. After his Suzuka triumph and the Ferrari driver’s latest error gifting Sergio Perez second, came Verstappen’s coronation. Although, as we’ll get to soon, not immediately.

Having missed his first, slim chance to seal the title in Singapore seven days earlier, Verstappen wrested control in Japan. He edged Leclerc for pole, then beat his rival in the race’s two main challenges.

PLUS: The confusion and controversy that should never overshadow Verstappen’s Suzuka magic

The first was the start. Verstappen actually launched worse with low revs, but it was his move on the grippy outside line with Leclerc just ahead that should be forever remembered. A brilliant, bold, very Verstappen move that maintained the lead and a crucial, spray-less advantage in the wet conditions. After the restart, he led Leclerc comfortably, which then got even easier when the Ferrari lost time waiting for Perez to pit as they all switched to intermediates.

Leclerc charged, but in doing so wore his tyres badly. Verstappen was so strong he maintained his gap, kept his tyres in better shape while doing so, then cleared off to secure a massive near-30s winning margin and history. He’s now just one win away from equalling the single season win record of 13, with four events still left.

Red Bull and Verstappen thought there was another lap to go, as the time limit caused confusion

Red Bull and Verstappen thought there was another lap to go, as the time limit caused confusion

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

2. Verstappen’s celebrations overshadowed by rules farce

Lots to unpack here and none of it good.

First, Verstappen had reached the Hairpin well into Suzuka’s second sector before Red Bull had to tell him he’d actually already finished the race the last time he crossed the line – its confusion clear.

Then, an absurd loophole in the championship’s rules regarding suspended/restarted events and full/reduced points plus Leclerc getting a penalty added up to Verstappen being told he was champion in the parc ferme interviews. And even then, he wasn’t entirely sure that was right.

This race ended with a strict cut-off at the three-hour event-limit mark. But when even a team as well run as Red Bull thinks that still means there’s another lap to go – as is the case with the two-hour distance rule utilised in Singapore – something is badly wrong with how F1’s rules are understood and explained. It’s not safe and it robbed Verstappen and engineer Gianpiero Lambiase of a famous celebration exchange on their team radio.

That said, Red Bull still didn’t think Verstappen would be champion at that point because he lacked the fastest lap – needed if Leclerc crossed the line second as he did. The Ferrari driver’s penalty dropped him to third, but the teams still didn’t think full points would be awarded for just 53% of the race being completed after the long deluge-induced delay.

But the wording of Article 6.5 of F1’s sporting regulations was key.

The rules around points in such circumstances had been addressed in the aftermath of the 2021 Spa ‘race’ farce. But as Article 6.5 includes the line “If a race is suspended in accordance with Article 57, and cannot be resumed…”, full points still counted because here proceedings didn’t end under the red flag. And so, Verstappen was champion.

The scenes were confusing, came across badly and left viewers who had switched off in the race’s immediate aftermath unaware the title battle was over. And, most worryingly, it means full points can still be awarded for a three-lap ‘race’ if it starts on time, gets delayed for nearly three hours then has a late restart for the rest of the 2022 campaign…

Gasly was left irate by the positioning of the vehicle on track before the red flag

Gasly was left irate by the positioning of the vehicle on track before the red flag

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

3. FIA systems are under massive scrutiny due to tractor and last-lap incidents

Red Bull was not alone in thinking the race hadn’t ended when it had. Ferrari had told Leclerc there were “two laps to go” as he battled Perez on what turned out to the final tour. And even after his chicane off and was heading down the pitstraight he was told “one lap to go”.

It cannot be acceptable that teams and drivers are left still thinking they’re racing when they shouldn’t be. Just think of the safety implications at event such as Spa, where the long lap means the cars are sent immediately back into the pitlane entrance when the chequered flag falls and marshals cross the track to make sure they do…

The competitors need to know the rules, but in such circumstances the FIA would be better served making sure such a possibility with the three-hour cutoff meaning no ‘plus one lap’ scenario is fully understood.

But this is small fry compared to the issue of recovery vehicles being on the circuit with cars still circulating in slippery, low-visibility conditions. Pierre Gasly was going too fast passing the Carlos Sainz crash site – following his delta time isn’t an excuse when he could’ve braked and gone by slower – and he then got penalised for going even quicker under the red flag afterwards.

But Gasly’s shock, anger, and fear were entirely appropriate given the presence of the tractor crane on the track when the whole pack passed it behind the safety car, and he did so adrift of his rivals after stopping. This is the only takeaway rather than piling blame onto Gasly given what is an understandably emotional issue, as it happened at the same circuit where similar circumstances ultimately claimed Jules Bianchi’s life.

The FIA has announced it will investigate what happened. Putting aside the bizarre note that this was instigated “also taking into account feedback from of a number of drivers”, its findings must be timely, clear and well-communicated.

And such circumstances must never be repeated. With such scrutiny on the FIA’s systems and the price so awful if anything goes badly wrong in motorsport, it’s surely also worth considering if races now do need to be stopped every time a recovery vehicle has to be sent onto a track, even in dry conditions.

Leclerc celebrates second with his crew, but his last-corner mistake ultimately cost him the position after his penalty was applied

Leclerc celebrates second with his crew, but his last-corner mistake ultimately cost him the position after his penalty was applied

Photo by: Ferrari

4. Leclerc is still making costly errors

“We were very fast for four or five laps but unfortunately the race was a bit longer than that and the fronts were just gone after four or five laps. After that it was all about trying to survive until the end of the race.”

Given how badly Leclerc’s tyres were worn compared to the inters on the Red Bull cars as Ferrari’s tyre degradation weakness bit again in Japan, it’s very impressive that he managed to defy Perez for as long as he did – keeping him just behind for seven tours. But that chicane slip cost Leclerc second place, ended his title challenge and came just as it appeared he had the Red Bull covered at every passing place.

Leclerc being unaware “this was the last lap” presents somewhat mitigating circumstances given he’d been told there was still one final tour to complete and so wasn’t at the point of all that pressure being released, but this was another 2022 error. It’s more akin to his Imola off chasing Perez rather than his Paul Ricard crash, but the total is still swelling.

Given Red Bull has shown it can out-develop Ferrari and Verstappen’s race errors consist just of his Spain and Singapore offs, Leclerc just has to stop making such slips if he wants to be a world champion with Ferrari. And that’s assuming the RB18’s lineage isn’t further steps better come future campaigns to ward off any driver brilliance in the red cars.

Mattia Binotto was displeased by the time differences between Singapore and Japan to make crunch stewarding decisions

Mattia Binotto was displeased by the time differences between Singapore and Japan to make crunch stewarding decisions

Photo by: Erik Junius

5. Stewards' investigation timing inconsistency is creating issues

A week before the Suzuka race, it’d taken nearly two hours for the final result and Perez’s Singapore victory to be confirmed. This was due to the stewards’ giving the Red Bull driver the chance to argue his case for why he had dropped too far back from the safety car too early multiple times. There, the right procedure was followed even if it was a tedious wait.

Then at Suzuka, it took just minutes for Leclerc to be slapped with a five-second penalty for cutting the chicane ahead of Perez and he wasn’t able to present his explanation for what happened.

“If you go straight for the decision as they are obvious, as they should be, then five seconds at least penalty in Singapore should have been given immediately,” said Ferrari team boss Binotto. “[This] would have given us the opportunity to manage certainly a lot differently the situation, and it could have been a potential victory [for Leclerc]. So, [we’re] frustrated and disappointed by that as well.”

In both examples, the outcome was correct, but it really is baffling why sometimes drivers are allowed to argue their cases to the stewards and other times they are not. Such delays are unfortunate, but getting the correct outcome is always preferable even if it means waiting.

Perez returns to second in the drivers' championship, but must focus on closing the gap to Verstappen

Perez returns to second in the drivers' championship, but must focus on closing the gap to Verstappen

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

6. Perez's Singapore performance recovery may have been a one-off

“It doesn’t change my life much if I am third or fourth, the most important thing is that we have a strong race car and we are able to progress through the field.”

Perez’s words post-qualifying may come back to bite him a long way down the line. That’s if his consistently poor qualifying performances compared to Verstappen mean he can’t get back into multi-team victory scraps in races and that then costs Red Bull a future world title.

There was much made of Perez’s post-race comments after his excellently-executed Singapore race drive, but these and the race circumstances there don’t hide the big gap in performance to Verstappen that has been exposed since the RB18 slimmed down and had its understeer eradicated.

PLUS: Why Perez’s new-era F1 promise has deteriorated into disappointment

To qualify 0.4s adrift of his team-mate at Suzuka and behind both Ferraris was poor, as was coming home nearly half a minute down on Verstappen having failed to pass a slower race-pace car on badly worn tyres.

Perez and his fans are right to point out that he’s now second in the 2022 standings and has earned Red Bull’s trust in doing what Gasly and Alex Albon couldn’t in picking up the pieces if Verstappen isn’t around to hold them. Plus, his defence/attack against Lewis Hamilton in 2021 and Leclerc last weekend helped seal Verstappen’s two titles. This is all to his credit.

But the picture is only rosy if Red Bull keeps winning easily. If another team/driver combo in the future produces a stiffer challenge than Ferrari/Leclerc in 2022, then the unbalanced Red Bull line-up will be exposed.

With four dead rubbers now to come, Perez should focus on closing the performance gap to Verstappen, which is particularly prevalent on the purpose-built facilities that make up the bulk of the calendar, and on building momentum for 2023.

Latifi bagged his first points of 2022 with an excellent ninth place

Latifi bagged his first points of 2022 with an excellent ninth place

Photo by: Williams

7. Drivers needing big results to close 2022 can deliver

After his Singapore GP had ended in a rather old-school, heavily smoking engine failure, Esteban Ocon arrived in Japan needing a pick-me-up result. The same applied to the entire Alpine team given Fernando Alonso’s engine stoppage earlier in that race. And both entities got what they needed at Suzuka.

Ocon qualified an excellent fifth, meaning he edged out both Mercedes drivers. He had been gaining confidence with every dry-conditions flying lap he produced on Saturday and feeling that the floor upgrade Alpine had introduced at Singapore was working well. In the race he held his place at the start, then defied Hamilton throughout the reduced contest once they were on inters – his car control and defending massively impressive against one of F1’s best-ever wet weather stars.

Alonso had had all of Alpine’s high points in 2022 to this point, with Ocon previously looking as though he’d enter his upcoming rivalry with Gasly on the back foot as a result. But he delivered brilliantly last weekend and fully deserves the 10/10 he received in Matt Kew’s Autosport driver ratings for this event.

PLUS: Japanese Grand Prix Driver Ratings 2022

Another driver to shine in the race was Williams’ Nicholas Latifi, who equalled his team’s best 2022 results with ninth. It wasn’t a perfect weekend display given his FP1 off and being outqualified by team-mate Albon yet again. But he executed the early switch to inters well post-restart and hung on with strong pace. A fine way to hit back at the online cowards who never miss a chance to throw hate in his direction, and a good memory to hold onto through his upcoming F1 exit.

Ocon will have Pierre Gasly as his new team-mate next season - but will be a harmonious relationship?

Ocon will have Pierre Gasly as his new team-mate next season - but will be a harmonious relationship?

Photo by: Alpine

8. Alpine will get an all-French 2023 line-up, with just two spots now still open

Ahead of FP3 at Suzuka, it was finally announced that Gasly will join Ocon as Alonso’s replacement at Alpine for 2023 – confirming rumours that been flying about the paddock for several races. At the same time, it was revealed that Nyck de Vries would join Yuki Tsunoda in the AlphaTauri line-up for next season with Gasly exiting.

PLUS: Why Red Bull freedom and an Alpine switch can define Gasly's F1 career

Red Bull wanted a suitable replacement for Gasly at its junior team once he became Alpine’s preferred choice in the aftermath of the Oscar Piastri debacle. And it settled on de Vries after his impressive race debut in place of Albon in Italy. It also emerged in Japan that compatriot and friend Verstappen had told him “just give [Helmut Marko] a call” at their shared post-Monza dinner, which kicked off their negotiations.

With the 2023 line-ups now sealed at all the ‘A’ teams, only Williams and Haas still have slots to fill. Mick Schumacher drove well in the race trying Haas’s gamble to run long on the full wets, but his FP1 crash (not in green flag conditions) and his ultimately underwhelming qualifying will count against him when the team weighs up re-signing him for year three - or turning instead to Nico Hulkenberg. Antonio Giovinazzi is also being considered, but is thought to be the outsider at this stage.

At Williams, Formula 2 race winner Logan Sargeant is the frontrunner, but a Schumacher switch could yet be a possibility now de Vries is no longer an option. Plus, another big name isn’t in the running either…

The

The "Honey Badger" looks set for a year of hibernation after leaving McLaren

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

9. F1 set to race without Ricciardo in 2023

In the aftermath of Gasly’s Alpine switch being confirmed, McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo acknowledged that “the reality is now I won't be on the grid in '23” once he departs the orange squad at this season’s end.

That will mean for the first time since the 2011 European GP in Valencia, Ricciardo won’t be racing when the 2023 season kicks off in Bahrain next March. His aim, however, is to remain a part of the paddock in a reserve driver role. But it is understood that, at this stage, it won’t be with Mercedes – even though the two sides have discussed such a development.

"It's now just trying to set up for '24,” added Ricciardo, who finished just outside the points in 11th last weekend. “I think that there could be some better opportunities then. So that's really what all this confirms, and now where the sights are set."

It is understood that trying to fill one of the open 2023 race spots at Williams or Haas wasn’t a realistic consideration for Ricciardo, which means he’ll be trying to get back into the F1 racing scene for 2024 based on his previous reputation. Given this has been dented by his poor results against Lando Norris at McLaren, such a return will be challenging. But far from impossible.

On the radio after the race, Vettel said Suzuka was

On the radio after the race, Vettel said Suzuka was "so much better than all the other" circuits

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

10. After a painfully long absence, Suzuka still thrills

The Japanese GP was another famous F1 venue to miss its race for three long years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Suzuka returned to create more famous memories with last weekend’s event.

Thankfully, the race wasn’t a washout – as the 90,000 fans packed into the venue did not deserve for that to happen. At the start, they were treated to Verstappen’s incredible move at one of F1’s most famous corners, while there were brilliant overtakes from George Russell at the top of the Esses later in the race, Ocon and Leclerc’s great defending, and superb moves in the pack at the start from Lance Stroll. On what turned out to be the last lap, missed by the TV cameras, Sebastian Vettel and Alonso had a fine scrap over sixth.

On what is set to be his final F1 outing at Suzuka – assuming he doesn’t get any further one-off appearances as he suggested he’d be up for doing in the future – Vettel summed up Suzuka’s appeal.

“I love driving, and around this track, I always felt very alive and the passion [from the fans] always felt very alive,” said the Aston Martin driver.

Suzuka was sorely missed from the F1 calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic

Suzuka was sorely missed from the F1 calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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