Max Verstappen grinned contentedly after taking the next step in defending his Formula 1 title. With pole position in Suzuka on Saturday, the Dutch Red Bull driver created the best conditions to become world champion for the second time on Sunday (7:00 a.m. CEST/Sky). “I’m very confident, we have a good car,” said the 25-year-old. Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz will start the World Championship race from positions two and three.

There was still excitement after the end of the time hunt because Verstappen McLaren driver Lando Norris got in the way very dangerously while his tires were warming up and he had to get off the track and onto the grass to avoid it. The race stewards investigated the incident unusually quickly and only issued a warning to Verstappen.

“There are no rules about what you can do. But you shouldn’t do what he did,” said Norris, initially assuming that the world championship leader would be punished. But that didn’t happen and the leader kept his place at the front.

Verstappen justified the incident with the temperature of his tires. “I wanted to accelerate, the tires were pretty cold and I had a big slide. Then Lando tried to overtake at the same time. Luckily nothing happened,” he said. The race director also took this into account. The commissioners justified the mild verdict by saying that “all previous violations of this type have led to a warning. Therefore, in this case, the same penalty will apply.”

“It was incredible to drive here again,” said Verstappen. The racing series did not travel to Japan for two years due to the corona pandemic. Sebastian Vettel had the last pole position in Ferrari in 2019, on his farewell tour before retiring in November, the Heppenheimer finished ninth this time. “Thank you Suzuka. This track is so much better than the others,” the four-time world champion from Hesse radioed to his team and fans. The Suzuka circuit is Vettel’s favorite stop on the racing calendar.

Mick Schumacher was eliminated in the second knockout round and only managed 15th place. After the 23-year-old’s training accident on Friday, the mechanics had at least repaired his car. Schumacher flew off the rain-soaked track in the first practice session on his slow-down lap and destroyed his racing car with a violent impact on the track barrier. Since, among other things, the chassis had to be changed, he was unable to compete in the second practice session.

“The car felt great, as did the track,” said Schumacher, who regretted not having made it into the third qualifying session. The former Formula 2 champion also spoke to Haas team boss Günther Steiner about his avoidable and self-inflicted accident. “We had a productive conversation. The content stays between us,” said Schumacher, who is continuing to fight for a new contract for 2023.

If Verstappen wins the Grand Prix and also turns the fastest race lap, he becomes champion for the second time in a row. “I don’t think about it that much. We need a perfect race to make it tomorrow,” said Verstappen. It can also be enough for the second title in other constellations, Verstappen only has to get eight points more than Leclerc and six more than teammate Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull. Before the 18th of 22 races of the season, Verstappen leads Leclerc with 104 points. After the Grand Prix, he needs a 112-point lead. Otherwise the decision will be postponed to the next race in the USA.