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Cool-headed Perez overcomes Leclerc – and the stewards

If its two-year absence from the Formula 1 calendar had led to any of the 20 drivers forgetting or underestimating the magnitude of the challenge that F1’s original night race poses, then the 2022 Singapore Grand Prix weekend will have left them all in no doubt.

Max Verstappen landed in the vibrant Asian city-state for his first of six attempts at clinching a second consecutive world championship title. With the seemingly unstoppable momentum of a five-race win streak behind him, on Saturday pole position appeared assured to be in the championship leader’s hands for 21 of the Marina Bay street circuit’s 23 corners. But a mathematical mishap by Red Bull denied him – he was told to abandon his final qualifying run.

Still, that seemed no reason to write off his victory chances entirely. Verstappen’s inevitable second world drivers’ crown will be defined by his relentless charges to victory while starting from the middle of nowhere. Eighth on the grid felt like an achievable challenge, even around a genuine street circuit such as this.

Instead, Charles Leclerc would have a second shot at converting a Singapore pole to victory after losing out the last time F1 raced around the city in 2019. But the Ferrari driver knew he would face tough competition, with Sergio Perez’s Red Bull and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes both a whisker away from having taken the top spot for themselves on Saturday.

Race start, Singapore, 2022
Leclerc lost out to Perez off the line

Singapore is always the longest night of the F1 season for its drivers and a torrential downpour within 90 minutes of the scheduled start only added to the challenge. With the flooded streets in no fit state to be raced on, FIA F1 race director Eduardo Freitas – much as he did in Monaco – delayed the start by over an hour to avoid the worst of the track conditions.

As the usual chorus of criticism of the FIA’s apparently aversion to start races in full wet conditions echoed around online fan spaces, the field duly lined up on the grid, unanimous in their preference for Pirelli’s green-walled intermediate tyres. When the lights went out, Leclerc’s lead lasted only a matter of metres. It was only the third time all season that the driver in second place had beaten the leader to the first corner.

“I don’t really know yet whether it’s me who did mistake in the way I do things or if it’s something else,” Leclerc later admitted. “The only thing I felt is that I had a little bit a bit of wheelspin and lost it and I saw Checo had an amazing start.”

Perez had all the time and space he could ever need to position his car for the first corner and secure the lead while, behind, those who had also started on the ‘dirty’ side of the grid had made much cleaner getaways than those they were alongside. Carlos Sainz Jnr muscled Hamilton out of third, while Lando Norris took fifth from Fernando Alonso. But back in the pack, Verstappen was swamped off the line when he fell into anti-stall, making his already difficult afternoon even harder.

Hamilton had looked impressively quick on Saturday around a drying track, but by the second lap of the race, he was far less comfortable on intermediates in his fuelled-up Mercedes.

“I told you about these tyres,” Hamilton relayed to his team. “In future you need to listen to me. No grip.”

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But while Hamilton struggled, the two leaders seemed more than capable of finding grip around the wet track. Perez had Leclerc shadowing him as they navigated the wet track, while Sainz in third fell to over five seconds behind his team mate by the start of the fifth lap of the race.

Drivers remained cautious over the opening laps as they treated their intermediate tyres with care. Down in 19th place, Zhou Guanyu was attempting to make progress through the field while his family watched on from the Alfa Romeo garage having made the journey to Singapore from China. On lap seven, Nicholas Latifi ensured Zhou would get to spend more time with his loved ones than he had expected to, when he clumsily drove into the Alfa Romeo while it was alongside him on the approach to turn five, ending both their races and earning Latifi a grid drop for Suzuka next weekend.

The Safety Car was eventually deployed, robbing Perez and Leclerc of their advantage out front. The pause in the action allowed the 18 remaining drivers to take stock of the conditions as everyone remained out on track with their intermediate tyres. The consensus was that wearing the intermediates down until they acted likes slicks was the best policy.

“It’s still damp,” fifth-placed Norris assessed. “It’s not drying as quickly as it did in qualifying, so maybe this ‘slick-termediate’ is the best choice.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Singapore, 2022
The track took a long time to dry out

The field spent a couple of laps behind the Safety Car before race control announced a resumption at the end of lap 10. Perez led the train but as he exited the tight turn 13 hairpin, he appeared to drop back just a little too far from the pace-setting Mercedes road car.

“The 10 car-lengths from Perez, now, from the Safety Car is way more,” reported Leclerc, astute enough to try and trap the leader into trouble with the stewards.

Perez led away as the green flags flew on lap 11. As before, both he and Leclerc dropped Sainz as the field continued to find the stubborn track surface was reluctant to offer up any grip despite the rain having stopped long ago. Verstappen was now up in seventh behind Alonso, but was struggling to get by the Alpine driver.

That was until lap 21, when Alonso lost drive along the short straight approaching turn 10. The Alpine driver allowed Verstappen through as he stopped his car by the wall and climbed out, the third retiree of the race in which he had reached a record-breaking 350 starts.

The Virtual Safety Car slowed the field down, giving those on the pit wall another opportunity to check in on conditions. Verstappen gave his Red Bull team a helpfully unambiguous assessment of the track.

“It’s still not slicks, mate,” Verstappen reported. “Somehow it just doesn’t dry. It’s still worse than quali.”

But down in 16th place, having started from the pit lane, George Russell was attracted to the prospect of moving rapidly through the field by switching to dry tyres. He lobbied his team, who eventually agreed, and Mercedes became the first team to bolt on medium tyres on their car, just over 45 minutes into the race. Almost immediately, it became clear Russell’s bold gamble would have next to no chance of paying off.

“No grip…” Russell relayed as his continued to lose chunks of time to Alexander Albon ahead with almost every corner he passed through.

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As Russell struggled to get his slick tyres to work, two more Virtual Safety Car periods – for Albon losing his front wing by hitting the turn eight wall and Esteban Ocon joining his team mate in retirement – offered two more opportunities for the field to switch to slicks. But still no one but Russell felt it was worth giving it a shot.

Approaching halfway through the originally scheduled race distance, Perez’s lead over Leclerc had grown to 4.5 seconds, its highest point thus far. “Beautiful,” Perez’s race engineer Hugh Bird praised his driver. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

The closest battle was now between Sainz and Hamilton for third, the Mercedes now within a second of the Ferrari. But running down the long straight approaching turn seven on lap 33, Hamilton locked up under braking while following behind the Ferrari and slid awkwardly into the TecPro barrier. Somehow, Hamilton’s front wing remained largely intact – save for a loose endplate – and he was able to reverse back and onto the track to continue the race, all hopes of a podium now dashed.

“I’m so sorry about that, guys,” Hamilton apologised to his team. “I fucked it up big time.”

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Singapore, 2022
The race was regularly interrupted

By coincidence Hamilton was called into the pits to replace his broken wrong at the same time that many of his rivals finally began to make the switch to dry tyres. Leclerc was the first of the leaders to make the move, but Red Bull responded on the next lap, mirroring Ferrari by pitting him for medium tyres and allowing Perez to retain the lead with a marginally increased advantage.

As drivers felt out the grip on their new dry tyres, Yuki Tsunoda completely misjudged his speed into turn 10, locking up and sailing off into the barriers at race-ending speed. With the crashed AlphaTauri posing a major hazard to oncoming cars, there was little surprise when the full Safety Car was deployed for a second time, Perez losing all of his eight-second lead.

The McLarens of Norris and Daniel Ricciardo – the only drivers still out on the intermediates they had started on – finally pitted for slicks, putting Norris back behind Sainz in fourth, with Ricciardo taking soft tyres and rejoining in sixth.

Preparing for the restart, Perez followed his same routine behind the Safety Car as he had had during the first deployment, dropping back considerably on the exit of turn 13. The field was still fairly strung out by the time Perez floored the throttle in turn 21 to take the green flag, with a couple of car lengths over Leclerc behind.

Verstappen in fifth got a good run on Norris’s McLaren heading through the turn six kink and pulled to the inside into seven. But with the track still treacherous offline, Verstappen found his car did not want to stop the moment he touched the brake pedal, sending him plunging down the escape road in a plume of thick, white tyre smoke.

“I completely bottomed-out,” Verstappen told his team, rejoining the track on now-ruined tyres. “I need to pit.”

By the time Red Bull had sent the championship leader back out on new, unspoiled softs, he had dropped to the very back in 14th – quickly gaining two places courtesy of a clash between George Russell and Mick Schumacher.

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Despite holding the lead yet again, Perez now had Leclerc looming larger in his mirrors than he had at any other time in the grand prix. With the race now set to reach the time limit rather than the lap count, Perez faced the prospect of having to hold off the Ferrari for half an hour if he was to win the race – and Leclerc was in hunting mode.

“They can activate DRS,” Leclerc declared as he stared at the Red Bull’s rear wing. As if the race director was listening to him, the system was activated for the first time just minutes later, allowing Leclerc to use the device in his pursuit of the leader.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Singapore, 2022
Leclerc got close, but couldn’t get by the leader

Despite putting Perez under more pressure than he ever had before, Leclerc was unable to get close enough to try even a cursory look at the leader. However, just a single error into turn 16 for Leclerc proved crucial for Perez, as it dropped the Ferrari out of DRS range on lap 48 with just under 20 minutes of the race remaining. Leclerc never got within a second of the Red Bull again.

As the minutes ticked away, Perez began to pull a small gap to his pursuer. But while hopes of a victory appeared to be fading for Leclerc, his team suddenly passed over a vital piece of information.

“We need to stay within five seconds from Perez,” Leclerc was warned with 13 minutes remaining. “He may have a penalty at the end of the race.”

The FIA had announced the stewards would investigate Perez after the race. Suddenly there was a new threat to his hopes of victory.

“We’re under investigation for a Safety Car infringement,” Bird alerted Perez before handing him a simple mission. “Let’s disappear.”

Knowing he needed a buffer of at least five seconds to insulate his lead from the most frequently issued time penalty, Perez promptly lowered the fastest lap of the race. Over the final 10 minutes, Perez pushed as hard as he dared, growing his lead from two seconds up to and over the crucial five second threshold in the final laps. Leclerc was unable to respond and Perez was instructed not to dare thinking of lifting off the throttle until his car was well beyond the chequered flag.

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As Perez crossed the line after the two-hour time limit had expired, greeted by the customary shower of fireworks, his advantage sat at 7.5 seconds. Red Bull celebrated, but it would be an anxious wait to see if his win would be confirmed after his investigation. For Ferrari, they could only hope their predictions would prove correct.

“We don’t know what the penalty will be, if there will be a penalty for Perez, Xavier Marcos Padros told Leclerc after the race. “Potentially two five-second penalties.”

“When will we know about the penalty?” Leclerc enquired. “We’ll know it after the podium,” he was told.

Red Bull, Singapore, 2022
Perez was eventually confirmed as the winner

Official confirmation that Perez had been given a reprimand and five-second time penalty – and therefore kept his win – would only come through at 1:42am local time. The Singapore Grand Prix winner was finally known, almost six hours after the race had originally supposed to start.

“It felt great,” Perez said. “It was such a tricky race.

“We basically were going to a few places where it was properly damp, properly wet and it was super, super tricky, [easy] to make a mistake. I had a lot of moments. So first of all, I’m really happy I finished the race. But secondly, to win this race, it’s super special.”

Having been unable to pass the Red Bull in the final phase of the race, Leclerc would be left lamenting his start where the lead was ultimately lost.

“Unfortunately, we had a bad start and from that moment onwards we were a little bit on the backfoot,” he said. “I tried to put quite a lot of pressure on Checo. Of course frustrated with the second place today.”

Sainz claimed a solitary third place to complete the podium, unable to keep up with the two ahead but freed from pressure for the second half of the race after Hamilton’s major mistake.

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“It was unfortunately quite lonely for me because I just didn’t have the pace,” he admitted.

“At one point I had to settle a bit and recover that confidence because I couldn’t keep up and once the confidence recovered in the slick and towards the last 10-15 laps. I managed to be quick but it was just way too late.”

Further back there were significant changes in the constructors championship. The two McLarens of Norris and Ricciardo finished fourth and fifth to jump the team above Alpine back into fourth.

Aston Martin secured their biggest points haul of the season with Lance Stroll sixth and Sebastian Vettel eighth, the latter being passed by Verstappen’s Red Bull on the last lap. Nonetheless the green team jumped both Ferrari customer squads to take seventh in the standings.

It was an evening of what might have been for Hamilton, who could manage only ninth after another error cost him a place to Verstappen. Pierre Gasly took the final point in tenth.

Verstappen’s winning streak may have ended in Singapore, but Perez kept their team on top of the podium. After a frustrating weekend for the championship leader, he will at least be comforted by the knowledge he only has to wait another week for a second attempt at sealing his second world title.

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