Championships are won over the course of a long, gruelling season, but every so often a drive stands out that defines that title. Today Fernando Alonso delivered just such a drive and took a step closer to burying his guilt-touched victory at Marina Bay in 2008. It was close though.
In fact, the margin of victory over the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel was only 0.2 of-a-second, but despite how perilously near the young German got to Alonso, there was a feeling that the double-World Champion had just enough in hand.
Alonso definitely helped himself with an aggressive getaway, weaving from the pole slot to the racing line, blocking an attack from Vettel as he did so and while the leading pair retained a stalemate, Jenson Button had no issues with taking the fight to his McLaren team mate, Lewis Hamilton.
As both got away from the line, Button jumped Hamilton only to give 3rd spot back to Hamilton approaching the exit – had it been anyone else, Button may well have pushed harder; however space in the opening few turns is tight and taking out one’s team mate is not best advised. Hamilton, on the racing line on the entry into the first corner, squeezed back passed the reigning Champion.
Neither Nick Heidfeld nor Vitantonio Liuzzi were as subtle. With the field circling the Marina Bay for the first racing laps, the pair bumped and scraped over 14th place, before the German slipped hard into Liuzzi’s rear. The contact, albeit brief, dislodged Heidfeld’s front wing, but damaged Liuzzi’s right rear suspension beyond repair; where the Sauber driver could pit for a new part (slowly), the Force India man was out of the race. Liuzzi parked his mortally wounded machine near the infamous ‘Singapore Sling’ – an act that would eventually bring out the safety car.
It was not the most auspicious of starts for Force India – Liuzzi’s team mate, Adrian Sutil – who had started on the eighth row alongside the Italian – took to the escape road at race start to avoid a potential accident; an action that would land him with a 20-second time penalty after the race. Another German driver, Nico Hulkenberg (Williams) also skipped the race track and would garner the same time penalty after the race.
The timing of the safety car worked very well for Felipe Massa. The Brazilian started 23rd following a gearbox failure in qualifying and with nothing to lose, pitted at the start of lap 2, changing to the hard tyres – with the safety car deployed less than a lap later, Massa found himself back at the tail of the pack with his obligatory tyre stop already completed. The Brazilian was originally to start dead last, but shortly before the race, Jaime Alguersuari suffered a water leak in his Toro Rosso – the Spaniard would start, but he did so from the pitlane.
As the field huddled together, a line of drivers from 12th downwards poured into the pits to get their stops out of the way, but the most significant was the car leading the trail. Red Bull, seeing Mark Webber stuck in 5th with little hope of passing Button, pulled the Championship leader into the pits to change to the hard tyres. The Australian emerged in 11th place, but without the need to pit again; however Webber would need to pass some cars to make this strategy really work.
The race restarted at the start of the 6th lap, with Webber instantly getting to work on the cars ahead. First up was the Virgin of Timo Glock (promote up the order by not stopping); the Red Bull also made moves by Kamui Kobayashi (lap 7), Michael Schumacher (lap 12) to bring to 8th place and under the wings of Rubens Barrichello. Sadly for Webber, the veteran would prove to be a wall that he struggled to break the Williams wall down.
It also proved to be disappointing for Vitaly Petrov – the rookie found himself running in the top ten early on, only to be touched by Hulkenberg in an ambitious manoeuvre – a move that would cost both vital positions.
Glock was also proving to be a barrier to overtaking. While the Virgin is certainly short on downforce and stability, not many would question the pace delivered by the Cosworth engine; however Glock was also delivering a stellar drive. For lap after lap, the German driver held a train of cars at bay, headed by Sutil (12th), Hulkenberg (13th) and Massa (14th). It would not be until lap 15 that Sutil finally found a way passed the Virgin, followed by Hulkenberg, Massa and Petrov a lap later – the Virgin would eventually fall to 17th position by the 20th tour, his tyres struggling under the pressure.
Fernando Alonso certainly did not look like he was under any pressure. With startling consistency, the Spaniard set fastest lap after fastest lap, Vettel was not letting his title rival get away – lessening fuel loads saw the front running machines pick up more and more pace; however Alonso would also be worried about the already pitted Webber.
Alonso would need approximately 31 seconds to spare if he wanted to clear Webber and the Ferrari driver would get it. As the Red Bull driver was stuck for an age behind Barrichello, the gap grew ever larger until Alonso hit his target on the 19th lap – trapped behind the Williams, the race win would allude Webber, as soon would 2nd position. With race passed the one-third point, Webber was now racing for 3rd place; a position that was more than attainable.
Meanwhile, the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton was still holding his 3rd place spot. By the 25th tour of the Marina Bay course, the 2008 World Champion had fallen some 21 seconds behind Alonso, but had a comfortable 6-second lead ahead of 4th place Button – by definition a quiet race for the McLaren team.
Hamilton only had 20 seconds over Webber – it was not enough to clear the Australian; something that became apparent when the McLaren driver pulled into the pitlane on lap 29. His tyres changed, Hamilton fed back onto the track to find himself nearly ten seconds behind the Red Bull driver – unless something very dramatic happened, the podium would be lost.
Also in the pits at the same time as Hamilton was the Lotus of Jarno Trulli. The part-Malaysian/part-British team have spent the entire season plagued by hydraulic problems and the Singapore Grand Prix would be no exception – with just less than half the race completed, one Lotus was already parked as Trulli climbed from his stricken machine.
The leaders were the next to stop for fresh tyres on lap 30. Vettel had closed the gap to 2 seconds, but it was not enough to overhaul the Ferrari – both stops were clean, but Vettel very nearly stalled as he left his pit, ensuring the Ferrari driver had a safe lead.
Another to pit was Jenson Button – the reigning Champion had spent the previous five laps taking chunks of time out of Hamilton, but it was not enough to jump his team mate; the gap to Hamilton was simply too large.
While the leaders were busying themselves with service, Kobayashi and Schumacher were battling over 9th spot with the veteran just ahead. The pair had been close for several, but it got too close on the 30th lap – Schumacher, baulked slightly while lapping a backmarker, left a small gap for the Sauber driver. The gap was never going to be big enough and Kobayashi speared the Mercedes driver into the tyre barrier.
Schumacher got away with it, although he pitted to be certain of no damage; however within two laps Kobayashi, desperate to make up for lost time, plunged into the guardrail entering the tunnel – race over. Remarkably, after several cars avoided the stricken Sauber, Bruno Senna missed the warning signals and ran into the side of Kobayashi’s car – he too, would retire on the spot, ending what had been a dreadful weekend for the Brazilian. Senna’s Hispania team mate, Christian Klien would retire only moments later with hydraulic problems.
With two cars precariously stuck into the wall, the safety car re-emerged, neutralising the race.
This was not good news for either Barrichello or Robert Kubica – both had yet to pit and would have to do so as the field clambered together, it would eventually cost them a position apiece. With 34 laps in the books Alonso still led from Vettel, Webber, Hamilton, Button, and Nico Rosberg, although the gap had been squeezed to virtually nothing.
It did not take long for Kobayashi and Senna’s cars to be cleared and the race restarted on lap 36 and once again Alonso and Vettel surged ahead.
Mark Webber was not quite as fortunate on the restart. The Australian found himself behind both Virgin machines at the restart and while Glock moved aside, Lucas di Grassi proved to be a moving chicane – as the Brazilian baulked the Red Bull driver, Hamilton grabbed the initiative and pulled into Webber’s slipstream. As the pair raced down straight towards turn 7, Hamilton inched ahead ever so slightly, yet Webber held the inside line – in a corner with enough room for only one car, both surged into it, hoping the other would bail out. Neither did and with a severe clunk, Webber’s right front nudged the left rear of Hamilton, damaging the suspension of the McLaren – the 2008 World Champion was out on the spot and for the second consecutive race would claim no points.
It was very much a racing incident and with a title at stake, neither was willing to give in, yet it may end up proving costly to Hamilton come Abu Dhabi.
The Webber / Hamilton clash proved to be not the only incident on circuit. Amazingly enough, Schumacher found himself clashing with the other Sauber of Nick Heidfeld on lap 37 – the pair found themselves battling further down the field.
The pair collided into turn 7 as well in a similar fashion as the Webber / Hamilton; however this time Schumacher surged from ever further behind in a move that was never going to work – Heidfeld slid into the barrier and out of the race, but Schumacher – with a damaged front wing managed to carry on to the pits.
This was turning into a horrible race for the German contingent.
Robert Kubica was also having a tough day. Following his earlier pitstop under the safety car, the Pole found himself with a slow puncture on the 46th lap – after his earlier stop dropped him to 7th, this would see the Renault driver fall out of the points altogether.
He would not take long to recover. On fresh rubber, Kubica swiftly found the back of the points train and began to make some moves – Buemi made it difficult for a time, but could not hold Kubica behind (lap 52); within a lap, Buemi pitted for soft tyres. A lap later, the Pole was easily let through by team mate Petrov to get into the points positions.
Even Massa was easy for the Renault – as the Ferrari driver struggled on tyres that had done well over fifty laps, he simply had no answer for the Polish powerhouse. Moves passed Hulkenberg (lap 55) and around the outside of Sutil into turn 5 (lap 56) saw Kubica regain his 7th position; however Barrichello was simply too far ahead to make a top 6 a possibility.
Kubica wasn’t the only fast man on track at this late stage. Sebastian Vettel busied himself setting fastest lap after fastest lap behind Alonso, but the Red Bull driver just did not have enough for the Ferrari as the gap rarely got to less than-a-second.
Vettel had a little help from the backmarkers – the leading pair found themselves approaching a battle for 13th between Heikki Kovalainen and Schumacher on lap 58. Alonso and Vettel soon made their way passed the pair, but Schumacher would use this opportunity to grab the place off of Kovalainen. Within one tour, Buemi had also caught the Lotus and attempted a dive bomb on Kovalainen for 14th – it was a ridiculous move and one that was never going to work out.
As Buemi slammed into the rear of Kovalainen, the inevitable hit cracked open the fuel pressure valve on the Lotus and while Buemi was able to continue on, Kovalainen ground to a halt on the start / finish straight as his airbox caught fire. The rear of the car quickly became engulfed in flames, yet incredibly no marshals were on hand to put out the blaze. With fire extinguishers handed to him by the Williams pit crew, the Finn doused the flames himself. It was an unfortunate way for Lotus to end the race; however the team took much encouragement from Kovalainen’s race pace.
Precious little of this mattered to Alonso as started the 61st and final lap. Although he kept his Ferrari just one second ahead of Vettel through the final laps, the double-World Champion never seriously looked as if he would be threatened by the Red Bull driver in the final few turns and as they pair crossed the finish line to take the chequered flag, Fernando Alonso claimed his second Singapore victory. This time, it was legitimate.
It was simply a master-class by the Ferrari, but a large amount of credit also for Sebastian Vettel. The young German pushed Alonso for the entire race, but he just did not have enough to steal the win on this occasion.
Mark Webber completed the podium with a drive that evenly mixed ballsy overtaking and ballsy strategy – pitting at such an early stage could easily have backfired for the Australian had he stayed in traffic, but the Championship leader made all the right moves to slot into a podium position. Jenson Button could not do enough to better 4th spot – in reality, the McLaren’s were the 3rd best car all weekend, meaning Singapore was all about damage limitation; however this result now leaves the Briton a full 25 points shy of Webber in the title hunt.
Nico Rosberg had another good, if silent run in the points as he took 5th position ahead of the Williams of Rubens Barrichello (6th). Robert Kubica crossed the line in 7th spot ahead of both Adrian Sutil and Nico Hulkenberg; however post-race penalties for the pair dropped the German pair to 9th and 10th respectively. Felipe Massa rescued his race somewhat with a solid run to the flag, helped by a first lap stop for the hard tyres.
Vitaly Petrov is bound to be disappointed with his 11th place finish – the early race contact with Hulkenberg was one of many factors that denied him points, but ultimately his lack of pace on destroyed tyres late on also dropped him back. Jaime Alguersuari also had a quite Grand Prix – he had looked pretty quick through Friday, but his pre-race failure put paid to any hope of points as he came home 12th.
Neither Michael Schumacher or Sebastien Buemi could improve on 13th and 14th respectively once passed Heikki Kovalainen – while Buemi was fairly anonymous on track, Schumacher had a tough time as this latest generation took no prisoners. Lucas di Grassi came home in 15th, the last of the runners, although Kovalainen was still classified in 16th, despite the late race blaze.
With now only four races remaining (should Korea actually go ahead), Webber has extended his lead at the top of the standings to 11 points, although his main chaser is now the in-form Fernando Alonso. Two consecutive retirements for Hamilton have dropped the Briton to third spot, some 19 points shy of Webber and now only 2 points ahead of Vettel. Jenson Button has fallen to fifth with 177 points.
Although hardly the most exciting race of the year, Marina Bay always does enough to keep one busy and this year was no exception and thankfully there was no race fixing (that we know of) to taint the event. This time around, Fernando Alonso took the race fair and square.
In two weeks, Formula 1 moves to Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix – one of the most majestic circuits on the calender, Suzuka rarely provides much in the way of overtaking, but has still managed to produce some of the most classic races of all time. A real drivers circuit, it is an absolute joy.
Race Rating: 3 out of 5
Marina Bay, Singapore Grand Prix (Round 15, September 26th)
1 ALONSO Ferrari 1h57m53.6s (61 laps)
2 VETTEL Red Bull +0.3s
3 WEBBER Red Bull +29.1s
4 BUTTON McLaren +30.4s
5 ROSBERG Mercedes +49.4s
6 BARRICHELLO Williams +56.1s
7 KUBICA Renault +1m26.6s
8 MASSA Ferrari +1m53.3s
9 SUTIL Force India +2m12.4s*
10 HULKENBERG Williams +2m12.8s*
11 PETROV Renault +1 lap
12 ALGUERSUARI Toro Rosso +1 lap
13 SCHUMACHER Mercedes +1 lap
14 BUEMI Toro Rosso +1 lap
15 DI GRASSI Virgin +2 laps
16 KOVALAINEN Lotus +3 laps
R GLOCK Virgin +12 laps
R HEIDFELD Sauber +25 laps
R HAMILTON McLaren +26 laps
R KLIEN HRT +30 laps
R KOBAYASHI Sauber +31 laps
R SENNA HRT +32 laps
R TRULLI Lotus +34 laps
R LIUZZI Force India +60 laps
(*Both Sutil and Hulkenberg received 20-second post-race penalties)
|1. Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing||202|
|2. Fernando Alonso||Ferrari||191|
|3. Lewis Hamilton||McLaren||182|
|4. Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing||181|
|5. Jenson Button||McLaren||177|
|6. Felipe Massa||Ferrari||128|
|7. Nico Rosberg||Mercedes GP||122|
|8. Robert Kubica||Renault||114|
|9. Adrian Sutil||Force India||47|
|10. Michael Schumacher||Mercedes GP||46|
|11. Rubens Barrichello||Williams||39|
|12. Kamui Kobayashi||Sauber||21|
|13. Vitaly Petrov||Renault||19|
|14. Nico Hulkenberg||Williams||17|
|15. Vitantonio Liuzzi||Force India||13|
|16. Sebastien Buemi||Scuderia Toro Rosso||7|
|17. Pedro de la Rosa||Sauber||6|
|18. Jaime Alguersuari||Scuderia Toro Rosso||3|
|1. Red Bull Racing||383|
|4. Mercedes GP||168|
|6. Force India||60|
|9. Scuderia Toro Rosso||10|