OPINION: No. 1 without a doubt

OPINION: No. 1 without a doubt

It’s a good job Max Verstappen is the way he is.

The 25-year-old really only cares about racing. Every time he gets out of a car at the end of a grand prix, he starts dissecting aspects of his races in great detail with his rivals, gesturing with his hands to describe car positioning and movements.

On Sunday night, he even broke off from Red Bull celebration photos in the pit lane to watch replays of Sergio Perez putting pressure on Charles Leclerc on the final lap of the race, leading to the moment that would ultimately crown him world champion in Suzuka.

There was far less of the emotion of a year ago due to many different circumstances. Some of those were understandable, but some really weren’t.

Verstappen was deserving of his big moment — to have his championship confirmed and revel in it without the questions that will forever be associated with last year’s success. He insists his mind wasn’t on winning the title, either last week or this, because he knew at some stage it was going to happen, but I bet if he dreamed of being crowned champion that dream didn’t include being told by Johnny Herbert while 99.9 percent of the Formula 1 paddock — myself included — screamed that he was wrong.

Of course, Herbert was not wrong, but even Verstappen’s own team thought he was. At no stage had anyone picked up during the race that full points would be awarded if the race was ended by the time limit expiring while cars were on track, rather than when cars were under red flag conditions.

If a race starts, runs to 39 laps and then gets red flagged, reduced points will be awarded. But if a race starts, gets instantly red flagged — as it did at Suzuka — and then restarts for just one racing lap before time expires, full points will be handed out. The limitations on points only applies for races that are suspended and can’t be resumed.

F1’s own graphics had been correct throughout the race but next to nobody knew. So while the huge delay had been overshadowed by the near-miss for Pierre Gasly with a recovery vehicle, with Charles Leclerc running second and limited points expected to be scored, there was no expectation that the title was about to be decided when Verstappen crossed the line, even when Leclerc got demoted to third with his time penalty.

Verstappen thought he was waiting for another few weeks, then was told he was champion and started celebrating, only to be informed that information wasn’t correct and to calm down again, and after all that finally was confirmed as having won the title due to a quirk in the rules. The sight of Verstappen sitting alone on a throne looking confused for a few seconds before deciding to rejoin Sergio Perez and Leclerc was bizarre, but fortunately such moments don’t matter to the Dutchman.

The confusion overshadowed the victory celebration. Sam Bloxham/Motorsport Images

“To be honest, I don’t mind that it was a little bit confusing. I find it actually quite funny!” Verstappen said as he reflected on his day.

“During the race, I had no clue what they were going to decide with the points. So of course, the main target was to win the race. But yeah, 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?’

“Then I realized that Checo was second instead of Charles. But I still didn’t know if it was full points, half points or whatever is, 75 percent. I don’t know how you do it. Then you read through the rules…and Tom came to me and he said that I was the world champion. So then we celebrated.

“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!”

That might have meant it was party time for some, but Verstappen’s plan was always to fly home straight from Japan. There was every chance he would secure the title at Suzuka but there was no contingency planning to allow for extravagant celebrations. It was very much “win the title; onto the next one.”

Of course, the way the race was handled and the confusion that ensued threatened to overshadow Verstappen’s success. Tomorrow morning, the FIA is set to issue the certificates to teams that have complied with the budget cap, so he might find himself at the center of controversy or questions once again if Red Bull is found to have been in breach. But none of the noise should ever detract from his quality.

With today’s victory, Verstappen matched Fernando Alonso’s tally of two world championships and 32 victories, leaving him joint-sixth on the all-time winners’ list — at just 25 years old.

But more than the statistics of what he has already done, more than what could be achieved in future, it’s the aura of the Dutchman right now that is so impressive.

If Suzuka had been dry, you expected Verstappen to win. When it started raining, you expected Verstappen to win. In any situation, you’d be hard-pressed to put your money anywhere but on the Red Bull-Verstappen combination right now. Steve Etherington/Motorsport Images

Perhaps the confidence as an observer is matched by the driver himself, leading to such unwavering conviction in the way he races. When Leclerc got the better start and the inside line into Turn 1 — from where he could have understeered wide to any car on the outside — Verstappen still beautifully swept back around the Ferrari to regain the lead. There wasn’t a second thought of being conservative with a chance of the title.

He appears to race in the same manner whatever the situation is, with a belief that it will go well, but also the knowledge that there’s always another race coming up that he wants to win just as much.

“I still have a few more years in F1,” Verstappen acknowledges. “So I hope that we can be competitive for a few more years. I want to win more races and, potentially, I want to try and win more titles. But of course, that’s not going to change what I’ve already achieved.

“There is no real pressure anymore , but I still want to try and win more races because, with the car we have now, you have to try and take advantage of that because you don’t know if you’re ever going to have that again — next year, or in the years to come.”

The overriding impression is that the Dutchman will get plenty more chances to win, and that he really doesn’t mind how any of those wins might come, either. But, like Alonso, even if that ends up not being the case, he’s already achieved something special. And he knows it.