Formula One champion Max Verstappen repeats with four races to go

AP photo by Toru Hanai / Red Bull driver Max Verstappen celebrates after winning Sunday's Japanese GP on the Suzuka Circuit to secure his second straight Formula One season championship. He locked up the title with four races still on the 2022 schedule.

SUZUKA, Japan — Max Verstappen's dominant run to repeat as Formula One champion somehow managed to maintain some intrigue, even if it is over with four races still remaining on the schedule.

Verstappen has clinched his second straight title on the international open-wheel circuit, with both awarded under bizarre and unprecedented circumstances long after he crossed the finish line.

The 25-year-old Dutchman who drives for Red Bull won Sunday's rain-shortened Japanese Grand Prix, his 12th victory this year, and didn't learn he was champion again until F1's governing body penalized Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc after the race.

"The championship obviously did not come the way this time around," Verstappen initially said after climbing from his Red Bull car, even apologizing to the crowd on the track's public address system.

Verstappen was told of his title seconds later, and crew members and friends suffocated him with hugs.

"Once I crossed the line I thought: 'It was an amazing race, good points again, but I'm not world champion yet,'" he explained, adding that he was tipped off when his mechanics started to cheer but still uncertain.

"I don't mind it was a little confusing," he added. "I find it actually quite ... funny."

Verstappen's first title was won in last year's season finale at Abu Dhabi, where seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes dominated the race until a late caution. It was then that race control set in motion an unprecedented sequence of events when race director Michael Masi, who has since been fired, allowed for a late restart.

Verstappen passed Hamilton to win the race and title, but Mercedes disputed the way the race ended and the teams argued with the FIA for hours before Verstappen was finally, officially, named champ and able to celebrate.

Two titles for Verstappen signals a changing of the guard in F1, even if his championship-clinching races will forever be remembered for their controversial endings.

In Suzuka, Verstappen started from the pole position in pouring rain only for the race to be stopped after two laps as several cars crashed. Competition resumed two hours later, but only 28 of the 53 laps were completed and Verstappen led the entire way.

The Belgian GP a year ago was not completed in the rain, and F1 for the sixth time in history awarded only half-points for that shortened event. So nearly all the teams figured Sunday's race was only going to be worth half-points again.

The entire paddock seemed surprised when the FIA then ruled full points would be awarded, but even that wasn't enough for the title to be settled. Only when Leclerc received a penalty that dropped him from second to third did Verstappen have the points margin needed to clinch.

"It's a great feeling, but when I crossed the line I didn't believe that we would have won the title right there," Verstappen said.

Sergio Perez, Verstappen's teammate, wound up second.

But just like last year, when Mercedes threatened for four days to take the Abu Dhabi finish to the highest sporting appeals panel, Verstappen is again waiting to see if his two titles are intact.

The FIA is investigating if Red Bull exceeded last year's spending cap, and a decision is expected to be announced Monday. It could involve financial penalties, or even strip Verstappen of his 2021 title. After the mess in Suzuka, stripping Verstappen of last year's title would be a public relations nightmare for F1 and the FIA.

Regardless, Verstappen has proved his worth on the track over the last two seasons and this year has been unstoppable.

Best driver. Best car. Best team.

Verstappen has won in all fashions this season — from the back of the field, driving through traffic and even recovering from an in-race spin. Sunday's race was another example of his dexterity as mistakes, errors and poor racing conditions never slowed him.

Verstappen essentially had the title wrapped up before the summer break, and it was never a question of if he would win, but when and in how many races.

Winning two titles in a row moves Verstappen into elite company. It also could mark the end of the era noted for the dominance by Hamilton, who holds the F1 record with 103 wins and shares the record for season championships with Michael Schumacher, whose final five titles came from 2000-2004. Hamilton's seventh title in 2020 was his fourth in a row.

The list of modern-era drivers who have won at least two straight championships also includes greats such as Fernando Alonso, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Sebastian Vettel.

Verstappen has edged past Hamilton as F1's main man. The 37-year-old Hamilton, whose Mercedes has been disappointing this year, has not won a race since the penultimate race of 2021.

Verstappen has racing is his blood. His father, Jos Verstappen, ran more than 100 races in F1 without a victory. The elder Verstappen was once a teammate of Schumacher with Benetton for part of the 1994 season, when Schumacher won his first title before repeating the following year.

Verstappen's mother, Sophie, was a top-ranked kart racer and a skilled driver in her own right.

Verstappen, who was born in Belgium and learned racing there, drives under the flag of the Netherlands, where after school each day he'd cross the border to his father's race shop and work on becoming a future F1 champion.

He is the youngest driver to ever make a F1 debut, at 17 driving for Toro Rosso in 2015.

With 12 victories this season he is nearing the season record of 13 shared by Schumacher and Vettel, both with 13. Schumacher won 13 in 2004, while Vettel did it in 2013.

Still on the 22-race schedule this year are events in the United States (Oct 23), Mexico (Oct. 30), Brazil (Nov. 13) and Abu Dhabi (Nov. 20).

Schumacher had one of the most dominating seasons in 2002, when he won the title at the French GP with six races still to go. That was when F1 had a 17-race season.

Sunday's race was messy from the start in the rain when Carlos Sainz Jr. spun and was knocked out of the race, and Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu also had a dramatic spin but continued.

Organizers stopped the race after two laps.

Pierre Gasly complained on his radio that he passed a recovery vehicle that was improperly on the track as the safety car emerged just as the race was red-flagged. It triggered rage throughout the paddock because it was a reminder of 2014, when French driver Jules Bianchi collided with a recovery vehicle on the Suzuka track. Bianchi was placed in an induced coma and died nine months later, and he was one of Gasly's closest friends.

"What is this tractor on track? I passed next to it," Gasly radioed his AlphaTauri team. "This is unacceptable. Remember what has happened. Can't believe this."

The FIA said after the race that it is investigating the deployment of safety vehicles.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and Perez were also incensed.

"We lost Jules Bianchi here, and that should never, ever happen, so there needs to be a full investigation as to why there was a recovery vehicle on the circuit," Horner said.

Perez also complained via social media: "How can we make it clear that we never want to see a crane on track? We lost Jules because of that mistake. What happened today is totally unacceptable! I hope this is the last time ever I see a crane on track!"

Even Bianchi's father, Philippe, chimed in with an Instagram post.

"No respect for the life of the driver, no respect for Jules' memory. Incredible," he wrote.