F1 – Japanese GP – Race

Konnichiwa, MIniFans! Just as it happened last week, the Japanese GP would be started in the wet, but with a fully different mindset. The rain started before the race was set to kick off, but it was a lighter and steadier rain than in Singapore, prompting everyone to choose intermediate tyres and the FIA to allow a standing start.

Leclerc almost paid Red Bull back as soon as the lights turned off, as he fought for the lead, but Verstappen stuck it out and remained on top. After a seemingly clean start, with only Vettel being somewhat left behind when a small touch with Alonso sent him to the runoff in turn 1, a safety car was deployed when the second sector proved too much for some drivers. Sainz and Albon were out of the race, while Gasly had a massive chunk on his front wing from one of the advertising banners covering the barriers that had detached from Sainz’s crash and headed into boxes to remove it and fit full wets on. Barelt a lap and a half in, the race was red flagged.

The replays were necessary to understand why the incidents had occurred. Beyond Vettel’s small hiccup, Sainz had lost his car due to aquaplanning and crashed into the barriers in just the right angle to destroy his rear wing, while Albon had been forced to abandon due to car issues. They also played Stroll’s incredibly risky choices at the start, which paid off for the Canadian driver. The remaining cars followed the safety car and lined up in the pitlane, waiting for the next instructions. Meanwhile, Gasly seemed to be extremely angry, due to an extraction vehicle alredy being on the track while the race had just been red flagged and he hadn’t had time to react to it.

The race was announced to be restarted almost an hour later behind the safety car and extreme wets were to be fitted on the cars, as this kind of start does not allow for any other kind of tyres. However, this did not happen, and only the medical car did a few laps to check the track’s conditions, doing several runs.

The red flag having come out barely a lap and a half in made everyone think about last year’s Belgian GP, where only two laps were completed behind the safety car. It soon turned into a long waiting game where the only thing that was discussed was Gasly’s anger at finding a recovery vehicle that had been taken out on the track before the red flag was even shown and the possible consequences as time kept ticking down.

After two hours of waiting, the race would finally be restarted behind the safety car, with all cars using full wets as per the rules, with only 45 minutes left on the clock. By now, visibility was better than in the first start, and some drivers didn’t wait to make it known through the radio, while others were a bit more hesitant. A couple of laps were completed behind the safety car before drivers were finally allowed to race again.

After an incident free restart, Vettel and Latifi, who had nothing to lose, pitted for intermediates, taking a bet on the new tyres and avoiding the spray they’d get behind the whole train of cars. More cars at the back started doing the same, while Vettel and Latifi painted sector times in purple, contradicting Hamilton and Mercedes’ radio messages, and everyone at the front flocked into the pits, and only four drivers remained on full wets, momentarily leaving Alonso, Ricciardo and Schumacher as the provisional podium.

Intermediates soon showed themselves as the ideal tyres for the track conditions and both Alonso and Ricciardo relented first. Soon, everyone was on the green tyres save for Schumacher, who had clearly been told they were waiting for a safety car, and held on for as long as he could, finally relenting and joining the rest of the pack with intermediates. Vettel and Latifi, the two to take the initial risk, had capitalized on it, both of them firmly in the top eight.

The race seemed settled, but Leclerc kept slowly losing time to Verstappen and inquired his team about a possible pit stop to change his old and seemingly very degraded tyres, but he wasn’t the only one to ask similar things through the radio. Those further back did box, and it proved that fresher tyres gave them an edge in terms of soring faster laps, but only after losing the time in the pit stop. However, eyes went to the front, where a Leclerc and Pérez battle was taking part.

The Monegasque fought with his worn down tyres, as Alonso tracked down Russell after getting a fresh set of intermediates towards the end, and the last lap saw just one change in the standings as Alonso managed to overtake the Mercedes. Back at the front, Leclerc fended Pérez off, but the Ferrari had left the track in the last few corners, earning himself a 5-second penalty, while Verstappen crossed the line in first place for the twelfth time this season.

The return to Suzuka was meant to be a celebration of Formula 1, of a sport coming back to one of the circuits that always welcomes them and maybe the crowning of Max Verstappen as this year’s world champion, but it highlighted the problems that the sport keeps having with race direction, rain and all that surrounds it. The first race in Japan since 2019 was tainted by yet another controversy surrounding safety in wet conditions, while Verstappen got help from some very specific regulations in order to get full points despite so little of the race being completed in order to become a two-time world champion.