A storm of controversy regarding cost cap breaches that emerged during the Singapore Grand Prix weekend threatens to overshadow this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Red Bull’s flying Dutchman Max Verstappen has another chance to clinch his second consecutive Formula 1 world championship at the race which returns to the iconic Suzuka Circuit – home of Honda – this weekend after a three-year absence because of Covid-19.
The runaway leader failed to secure the title at last weekend’s rain-affected Singapore Grand Prix, but he will do it in Japan if he wins and nearest rival Charles Leclerc finishes lower than second.
Verstappen is 104 points ahead and he needs to extend that to 112 points over the field to claim the championship after Sunday’s race.
Simply put, if Verstappen gains eight points on Leclerc and six on teammate Sergio Perez, who won in Singapore, he will be only the third driver after Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel to clinch the title with four races to spare.
History appears to be on Verstappen’s side at Suzuka
Notably, no fewer than 12 F1 world champions have been crowned at the Japanese Grand Prix.
“This is not where we want to be but we move on to Japan,” Verstappen said after a rollercoaster wet-dry race in Singapore where he finished seventh to end his five-race winning streak.
The 25-year-old has never won in Japan and will aim to bounce back from a frustrating race under the lights of Singapore, where he finished seventh after starting eighth on the grid.
A fuelling blunder in qualifying left him seething and gave him too much work to do on the tight Marina Bay street circuit, where overtaking was extremely difficult.
That will be less of a problem at Suzuka, on a circuit characterised by sweeping bends and dramatic elevation changes.
Weather forecasts suggest the race could be another wet one, after a heavy rain storm delayed the start of the Singapore Grand Prix for more than an hour.
The Japanese Grand Prix has not been held since 2019 because of the pandemic, when it was won by Valtteri Bottas in a Mercedes, and it will likely take more than rain to dampen the enthusiasm of fans and drivers.
Casting a shadow over Suzuka will be the FIA investigation into 2021 team spending
Rival teams claimed at the Singapore Grand Prix that Red Bull and Aston Martin had spent more than the $145 million cost cap that was introduced last season to make racing more competitive.
A furious Red Bull chief Christian Horner blasted the claims as “fictitious” and threatened legal action, while the FIA said they were “unsubstantiated” as they still had to conclude their investigation.
The FIA are due to release their findings in a report later Wednesday.
Should any team exceed the cost cap then there are a range of penalties available, from fines for “minor” breaches of the cap all the way up to points deductions and disqualification from the championship for a serious “material” breach.
If Red Bull are found to have broken the rules, it would cast a further shadow over Verstappen’s first world title, won in controversial circumstances in the final race of 2021 in Abu Dhabi.
By contrast, this year’s fight is all but over, and it is a question of when, not if, the dominant Dutchman, who has won 11 of 17 races, will be declared champion again.
Verstappen will clinch the championship if he wins in Japan and takes the bonus point for the fastest lap, regardless of where Leclerc finishes.
He can wrap it up even if he does not win Sunday’s race, although another finish outside the top six would see the fight continue to the United States Grand Prix in Austin in a fortnight’s time.