SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Max Verstappen survived a dramatic first lap, then cruised to victory at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday to move closer to his third straight Formula One title.
The Red Bull driver, who missed the podium a week ago in Singapore, started from pole and held on for his 13th victory of the season.
With Verstappen’s victory, Red Bull clinched the constructors’ title, its sixth overall and its second in a row. They did it with six races remaining.
“What an incredible season we are having,” Verstappen said. “You can all be very proud here on the track and back at the factory. You built a rocket car, well done.
McLaren driver Lando Norris finished second, 19.4 seconds behind Verstappen, while his Australian teammate, rookie Oscar Piastri, finished third for his first F1 podium.
Verstappen, who also earned a point for the fastest lap, increased his lead over Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez to 177 points. He could win his third consecutive title at the Qatar Grand Prix, October 6-8.
The race started in exciting fashion with Verstappen, Piastri and Norris neck and neck, but the Red Bull driver maintained his lead through the first two corners.
Verstappen commented on the excitement of the start.
“Luckily nothing happened,” Verstappen said. “Everything was pretty tight but that’s racing, that’s how it happens at the start. And then of course you had a good battle in turns 1 and 2, I was lucky there was a little bit more grip in turn 2.”
It was a disastrous day for Perez, who received a penalty for hitting Haas driver Kevin Magnussen and retired from the race after serving the penalty.
The Mexican driver won in Saudi Arabia in March and Azerbaijan in April, but has struggled since.
Verstappen saw his record 10-match winning streak come to an end at Marina Bay in Singapore and came to Japan determined to get back on top of the podium. Before Sunday’s race, he led every session at the fast Suzuka circuit, where he wrapped up last year’s championship in a rain-shortened race.
On Sunday, the conditions were ideal and Verstappen took full advantage of them.
The safety car came out on the first lap when Alfa Romeo driver Valtteri Bottas made contact with another car, causing debris to hit the track. Verstappen was able to quickly regain the lead after his first pit stop and was never seriously challenged.
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc finished fourth, followed by Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.
A battle between the McLaren drivers was ultimately won by Norris. The Briton outpaced Piastri at the start, falling behind after the rookie stopped under a virtual safety car, then producing enough pace to change position.
“The progress we’ve made is quite remarkable,” said Norris, who also finished second in Singapore. “We come for Red Bull.”
It was a memorable result for Piastri as the 22-year-old driver has just signed a contract with McLaren until the end of 2026.
“It’s definitely been a pretty special week,” Piastri said. “Obviously with the extension announcement and then the front row qualifying and the first podium today, it’s definitely been a fun week.”
Last week’s winner, Carlos Sainz Jr., finished sixth for Ferrari, ahead of George Russell in the other Mercedes.
Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso finished eighth, followed by Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and teammate Pierre Gasly completing the top ten who finished in the points.
With their cars starting ninth and eleventh, AlphaTauri was in contention for points early on, but faded as the race developed. Liam Lawson finished 11th while local favorite Yuki Tsunoda finished 12th.
AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing