Max Verstappen makes a triumphant return in F1 by claiming a commanding victory at the Japanese Grand Prix

SUZUKA, Japan — Max Verstappen’s record-breaking dominance in Formula 1 resumed with his victory in the Japanese Grand Prix, leading almost the entire race on a sunny day in central Japan.

His abrupt breakdown two weeks ago in Melbourne, Australia, looks like a blip in his total command over F1. He was out on the fourth lap when his rear brakes caught fire.

Nothing like that this time.

Verstappen basically led from start to finish except briefly after a pit stop. He was followed across the finish line by Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez — 12.5 seconds behind — and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari. Sainz was 20 seconds off the pace.

The three-time defending F1 champion is again this season’s points leader and now has won 22 of the last 26 races dating from the start of the 2023 season. Only two other drivers have won in that span — Red Bull teammate Perez and Sainz, the winner in Australia two weeks ago.

Responding to a question, Sainz suggested that Verstappen and Red Bull are so dominant that the season might already be over after just four of 24 races.

“I think they are definitely going to have an advantage in the first third of the season until we bring in one or two upgrades,” Sainz said. “But by that time maybe it’s a bit too late with the advantage they might have in the championship.”

Verstappen, of course, said the season would be competitive and suggested Red Bull might struggle in street races.

“It’s still a very long season,” he said. “I don’t want to think about the rest of the season too much.”

A red flag just seconds into the tightly packed first lap when Alex Albon and Daniel Ricciardo clipped each other on the second turn and crashed out halted the race.

That was basically the only real drama.

“The critical bit was the start to stay ahead and after that the car just got better and better,” Verstappen said later. “It couldn’t have been any better.”

Both Albon and Ricciardo walked away, apparently without serious injuries. The restart was delayed 30 minutes to get the cars off the track and clear debris.

Verstappen, who now has 57 career wins, pushed his season points total to 77 and is 13 clear of Perez on 64. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc follows with 59 with Sainz on 55.

“It’s nice to win, and it’s nice to win here in Japan,” said Verstappen, whose car is powered by a Honda engine. “It’s always an important race for us and it’s great to win here in front of Honda.”

“Melbourne felt like a bit of a hiccup,” he added. “But what we did today is what we want to do and that’s what we aim to do every single weekend.”

Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda, driving for the RB team, finished 10th to earn a point.

The next race is the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai in two weeks. F1 has not run there since 2019 with four races called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An F1 sprint race will also be run in China a day before the GP, cutting down practice time on an unfamiliar track.

“It’s going to be quite hectic,” Verstappen said. “We’ve haven’t been there in a while — only one practice session to get into it again. So I think it will be quite interesting.”

Verstappen, Perez and Sainz were all critical of squeezing in the sprint, which cuts out practice time. But they said it might make the weekend more entertaining for fans and drive interest and revenue.

“I think it’s not great,” Verstappen said. “When you have been away from a track for quite a while, you never know what you’re going to experience. It would have been better to have a normal race weekend.”

Sainz added: “I think it’s not a good choice to put the sprint after four or five years absence. We also heard there is resurfacing going on.”

The Japanese GP was run in the midst of the cherry blossom season across the Japanese archipelago. The Suzuka track was built by Honda and is still run by the Japanese car builder. It’s set southwest of Nagoya, Japan’s fourth largest city, in a center of heavy industry.

Verstappen, 26, put down rumors early this week that he might leave Red Bull, maybe for Mercedes.

“From my side, I’m very happy where I am. And, yeah, we want to keep it that way,” he said and even hinted at an early retirement.

“I have a contract with Red Bull until ’28,” he said. “After that, I first want to see if I actually even want to continue. That’s for me the most important.”