Given the 2023 Formula One season has already definitively belonged to Max Verstappen, it was fitting he single-handedly closed out the constructors’ championship for his Red Bull team with a commanding victory at the Japanese Grand Prix. He is now drivers’ champion-elect, the title all but claimed at Suzuka. Only the formality of closing it out in Qatar remains.
The race was almost the season in microcosm as Verstappen dominated from pole to flag. Imperturbable, untouchable, unstoppable, Verstappen the terminator still young enough to be adorned with wisps of teenage-esque facial hair. He has 13 wins from 16 meetings and has been the overwhelming contributor to Red Bull seizing a sixth title with a record six meetings to go.
The 25-year-old was joined by team principal Christian Horner on the podium to acknowledge the team title, one long inevitable but nonetheless celebrated with abandon at one of F1’s greatest venues. Verstappen’s drivers’ championship is set to be delivered in considerably more underwhelming circumstances.
With his team-mate Sergio Pérez enduring another shocking afternoon and retiring from the race, Verstappen is set to secure his third championship after the sprint race in the next round in Doha. He leads Pérez by 177 points and needs to be ahead by 172 after the sprint. Pérez must outscore him by six points in the sprint just to take the fight on to Sunday, an enormously tall order.
Verstappen celebrate on the podium with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Verstappen is likely to seal the title after a meaningless 30-minute dash in the desert, a procession at a doubtless all-but empty circuit devoid of atmosphere. If so, he will claim it without climbing to a podium since the sprint format celebrates winners on the track.
F1 knew this risk when they instigated the format, doubly so when scheduling them at the business end of the season, decisions they might rethink long and hard about over the winter.
Verstappen said earlier this weekend he does not care about how and where it is done, only that it is under his belt as he continues an inexorable march, a relentless advance typified by Suzuka. Having been challenged at the start by McLaren’s Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri he held his nerve and his place sandwiched between the two charging papaya cars, kept his nose in front as they swept into the Esses. And that was it.
Clean air beckoned and with it an ever extending gap. The McLarens threw all they had but were left behind nonetheless. By the finish the gap to Norris who was second was 19.4 seconds, while Piastri took third, a brilliant result for a rookie taking his first podium on a challenging circuit he has never raced before. The Australian is an undoubted talent.
The race had never looked in doubt for Verstappen after those opening moments and as Pérez once more flailed in contact with other cars, damage and a series of penalties before he was retired, it was the world champion who brought home the points Red Bull required.
Their title is a remarkable feat, their second in a row, their sixth since they were formed in 2005. Their RB19 has been utterly dominant this season, winning 15 of 16 races, denied just once by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in Singapore. Their endeavours were acknowledged by a beaming Horner, visibly proud of his team’s achievement.
“This sixth constructors’ championship is beyond our wildest dreams, coming into the season I don’t think we could have dreamed of having a season like this,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. Last year was a very strong year for us but to have kept that momentum rolling with the challenges we have had is testimony to all the men and women of the team that have worked tirelessly to have produced a car as competitive as we have had and that Max has made such good use of.”
Verstappen has been the vanguard of their charge and had Pérez been closer to his team-mate on more occasions they might have closed out the title even sooner. Horner also paid fulsome tribute to his leading driver.
“Max is absolutely at the top of the game, he is the best driver in F1 at this point in time,” Horner said. “He has this inner hunger and determination and huge ability but he channels it and he does not get distracted by some of the trappings of F1, he is an out and out racer.”
The rest of the grid has some way to go to come close to matching Red Bull but this was a title the team thoroughly deserved. They have not only had a mighty car but been all but flawless operationally, calling races with precisionto set the benchmark for performance at the top level.
One title is done, the second in the bag. Red Bull and Verstappen left Japan with their season all but complete, the sport’s dominant force enjoying their spoils but with one eye already on the future.
Ferraris’s Charles Leclerc was fourth with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell in fifth and seventh for Mercedes. Carlos Sainz was sixth for Ferrari, Fernando Alonso in eighth for Aston Martin, Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, the Alpines, in ninth and 10th. – Guardian