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Verstappen Wins in Japan; Clinches Second Championship

Sports

The result on Sunday gave Verstappen an unassailable 113-point lead in the championship. | Image by Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

The rain returned Sunday for the Japan Grand Prix bringing with it chaos and delays, but it would not be enough to stop Red Bull’s Max Verstappen from clinching his second World Driver Championship in dramatic fashion.

Verstappen only needed to finish 8 points ahead of his closest rival, Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, and 6 points ahead of his teammate Sergio Perez to secure the 2022 championship.

With the rain letting up as the drivers took to the track for the formation lap, all twenty drivers were utilizing the intermediate tire. However, debate began immediately on whether this was the best choice as the conditions on the track were extremely wet, possibly demanding the full wet tire option.

Making matters worse, the design of this current generation of Formula 1 cars creates so much downforce that water underneath the car is pulled up off the track and pushed out the back in a cascade known colloquially as a “rooster tail,” which diminishes visibility significantly down the grid.

Between issues with track grip on the intermediate tire and the visibility issues caused by the rooster tails, the opening lap was sure to be chaotic, and it would not disappoint. Within seconds of the lights going out, Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel spun off the track, tumbling down the order and losing all advantage from his qualifying heroics the day before.

By turn 11, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz also lost control and spun into a barrier, ending his day early. Of the incident, Sainz later said, “Basically, by the time we started the race, we were on inters, but the track was nearly into extreme conditions. I had no visibility, so I tried to get out of Checo’s [Sergio Perez’s] slipstream, or Checo’s water curtain, and suddenly I found myself in a puddle and had aquaplaning and lost the car.”

The first lap chaos continued and claimed Williams’ Alex Albon, who was forced to retire his car as well. The most curious moment, however, was when a panel of the track’s exterior wall somehow ended up lodged in Pierre Gasly’s front wing, causing him to drive around the track with zero visibility for a short time.

All of this happened behind the two main championship contenders, Verstappen and Leclerc, who battled off the line into the first corner. Leclerc almost took the lead with a great start off the line but finally surrendered to an aggressive Verstappen, who went wide into the turn and braked extremely late to maintain his position.

With Sainz and Albon crashed out and rain beginning to fall heavily again, the race directors red-flagged the race, which brought all of the drivers into the pit lane to wait for safe track conditions to return before recommencing the race.

After a long delay, the race resumed with each team putting their drivers on the full wet tire; however, as always, the question quickly turned to when would be the appropriate time to move into the faster intermediate tire.

As usual, those in the back of the pack with little to lose were the first to brave the tire change. Vettel and Williams’ Nicholas Latifi plunged into the pit lane to make the switch and quickly proved to be many seconds faster than the field, sparking a cavalcade of cars coming in to make the swap themselves.

Many teams, including Red Bull, double-stacked their pit stops, going back-to-back with Verstappen coming in first, followed directly by Perez. Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and Haas’ Mick Schumacher decided to stay out on the full wet and not surrender their track position, but this decision proved to be a major error as both drivers were completely outmatched by their competitors on the better tire selection.

Verstappen went on to obliterate the field, quickly retaking the lead after the pit stop and getting over twenty seconds ahead of Leclerc in second place.

While the win looked to be a formality, it appeared that Verstappen would have to wait another week to clinch the world championship, as he would likely finish one point shy of the threshold needed.

However, in shades of Abu Dhabi 2021, Sergio Perez would prove to be the perfect complement to the Red Bull team and would play a critical role in the race’s ending and Verstappen’s pursuit of the title.

Raging back in the final laps, Perez threatened to pass Leclerc on numerous occasions — an outcome that would assure Verstappen’s second championship. Yet Leclerc would defend beautifully, continually keeping his Ferrari in the right place and holding off Perez’s attack.

Perez relentlessly kept up the pressure, though, and it finally paid off as, in the final turn of the last lap, Leclerc made a mistake. As Perez pressed one final time, the Ferrari driver lost control of his car, went off the track momentarily, and returned to the track in front of Perez.

The incident was immediately noted by race control, and within minutes of the race’s conclusion, the race stewards handed Leclerc a 5-second penalty for gaining a racing advantage by leaving the track, putting him behind Perez in the final standings and securing the title for Verstappen.

With a handful of races left, the driver’s championship may be Verstappen’s, but the teams are still competing for the constructor’s championship, with Red Bull looking to lock that up as well in Austin at the United States Grand Prix on Sunday, October 23.           

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