Max Verstappen proved in Singapore last weekend that he is human.
It is a sign of his dominance this season that he could afford to have “a really terrible weekend” and still be in a comfortable position to win his second Formula 1 title at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday.
“We have five races left, we have a very big lead, but I want to have a perfect weekend every single time,” said Verstappen, who has a 104-point advantage in the drivers’ title.
He can clinch the championship by winning in Japan and taking the point for the fastest lap, no matter the result of his nearest rivals, Charles Leclerc of Ferrari and Sergio Pérez, his Red Bull teammate.
Singapore offered Verstappen the first opportunity to retain his title, but it did not go well.
He should have been on pole position, but in qualifying he was told by his team to abort his final lap. If he had completed it, his car would not have had enough fuel to provide a sample, required by the regulations. The penalty would have been starting last.
Verstappen said the mistake by his team was “really bad.”
“I know it’s a team effort, that I can make mistakes, the team can make mistakes, but it’s never acceptable,” he said.
Verstappen also made errors. At the start of the race, his car went into antistall, where the clutch is automatically engaged because the revs are too low, leading to a slow getaway. By the end of the first lap, he was 12th.
During the race, made difficult when the track went from wet to dry, Verstappen tried to overtake Lando Norris of McLaren, but locked his brakes.
Verstappen finished seventh behind the winner, Pérez, and Leclerc, who was second.
“It was just a very frustrating weekend,” said Verstappen, who turned 25 on Sept. 30. “It all kicked off with the big mistake in qualifying, and from there it can either go brilliantly or it can go as it did.”
“Luckily, I’ve a few more birthdays, so I should be OK.”
Christian Horner, the team principal, agreed that it was “a horrible weekend” for Verstappen, but said it would be phenomenal if he could win another title in Japan.
Although Honda withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of last season, Red Bull continues to use its power units, which are serviced in Sakura, the manufacturing plant in Japan.
“There’s always a unique atmosphere” in Japan, he said, “hugely enthusiastic support, and Honda is obviously a cult brand in Japan. Beyond that, it’s a mega-circuit.”
After winning 11 Grands Prix this year, including five in a row before Singapore, Verstappen is fully deserving of a second title, Horner said.
“Max has been truly outstanding this year after what was an epic championship last year,” referring to the battle with Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes that was decided on the final lap of the last race, in Abu Dhabi.
“After achieving that first world championship, he’s just made another step again this year. Some of the drives have been just simply outstanding under enormous pressure. He’s just constantly delivered.”
Horner said Red Bull was “not as competitive as Ferrari at the start of the season.” Reliability issues caused Verstappen to retire in the first race, in Bahrain, and the third, in Australia.
“They put us on the back foot, but nobody lost their focus on the objective in hand,” Horner said.
“As a team, we’ve been effective and operationally together. Strategically, we’ve been sharp and we’ve delivered, so he fully deserves to be in the position that he is.”
Leclerc can mathematically still win the drivers’ championship, and Ferrari remains in the picture for the constructors’ title. But the team is 137 points behind Red Bull.
After suffering reliability issues, making strategic mistakes during races, and with Leclerc’s own errors also undermining a title bid, Ferrari is turning its attention to a more sustained challenge next season.
“As far as the development of the car is concerned, the focus is on 2023,” said Laurent Mekies, the Ferrari sporting director. “At the racetrack, we still want to fight for wins, to take every single opportunity to become a sharper team.
“We’ve made a great step this year, but we are perfectly aware that there are more steps to come.”
With five races remaining, Verstappen knows he is in a comfortable position: “I’m still 104 points in the lead,” so winning the title “is normally not a problem.”
But his quest for perfection is evident. “I hope this is not the best ever,” he said. “I still want to improve, I still want to do better in the coming years.
“At the moment, I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, but I will never be satisfied. I always want more.”