Sebastian Vettel closed to within one point of his second World Championship on Sunday.
The Red Bull pilot secured yet another victory – his ninth of the year – ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button.
It means a single points score in Japan will be enough to take the title beyond Button, who is now the only other driver left in the hunt. Realistically, however, the title is long gone.
Off the Line Like a Shot
One could say the final vestiges of a championship challenge disappeared almost as quickly as Vettel at the start. While those behind filtered themselves into something vaguely resembling an orderly line, the reigning champion vanished from view, building an astonishing 2.5-second gap to Button on the first lap alone.
That became 4.2-seconds at the end of the second tour – even at this stage, the die was being cast heavily in Vettel’s favour.
For Button, luck mixed with his now-famous soft touch brought him into contention. Starting 3rd, the McLaren ace zipped passed the (again) sluggish Mark Webber off the line, as the Red Bull man suffered from clutch issues once again.
Indeed Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso would also sweep past the Australian, dropping Webber to 4th before the opening turn. This was a disastrous beginning for Webber – with his DRS proving to be faulty and his KERS intermittent, overtaking was going to be a tougher prospect.
The biggest loser was Lewis Hamilton in the second McLaren. Starting on the second row, the 2008 world champion initially got off the line well, only to be squeezed out in the first corner.
His momentum curbed, Hamilton fell behind Felipe Massa (5th, Ferrari) and a pair of Mercedes’, headed by Nico Rosberg in 6th. It spelled disaster for the now 8t place Hamilton, who was now once again facing the rear wing of Michael Schumacher. Yet unlike their Monza encounter, the McLaren pilot penetrated Schumacher’s Mercedes defence quickly and simply.
A short period darting around Schumacher’s mirrors kept the German veteran busy, until the fourth lap when an uneasy exit from turn six handicapped Schumacher on the approached to the ninety-degree left-hander that is turn seven.
Hamilton, however, had already taken 7th long before the apex approached. That became 6th a lap later, with Hamilton making easy work of Rosberg. His sights now descended upon the top five.
Now behind the charging McLaren and sensing their Pirelli’s were beginning to age beyond reason, both Mercedes stopped early with Rosberg (lap 9) and Schumacher (lap 10) taking on the fast running and fast wearing super-softs.
Falling Off the Cliff and Into the Barrier
Alonso, too, veered to the pitlane for some early work at the end of the tenth tour. It was a necessary evil for the Ferrari. Having taken far too much out of his super-softs defending against Webber, the Spaniard was defenceless to defend against the Red Bull onslaught, with the Australian assuming 3rd at the entry of the tunnel, following a brief side-by-side carbon fibre dance.
While this may have released Webber to chase after Button for 2nd, it was clear Vettel was long gone.
Not all ran as comfortably in the tunnel. Following a first lap clash with HRT’s Daniel Ricciardo (which left the rookie with a broken front wing), Virgin’s Timo Glock rallied around in 22nd, until sliding into the barrier at tunnel entry with broken steering:
“I had quite a good start but (…) in the second sector Ricciardo drove into the rear right of the car and from that moment my steering wheel was not straight. I had a lot of degradation on the rear right tyre and then suddenly I lost the rear under braking and when I hit the wall…”
Eleven laps in and the streets of Marina Bay had claimed their first victim.
Poor Judgement and Calamity
With thoughts of a safety car uppermost in the minds of strategists, much of the field began to pour into the pits, including Webber. It would only lead to frustration for the Australian – having stayed out an extra two laps, the Red Bull veteran lost out to Alonso’s fresh tyre pace, dropping behind the Spaniard as the field sorted itself out.
Glock’s stricken machine, neatly and quickly tucked away behind the Armco barrier, allowed the race to continue unabated.
Renault’s Bruno Senna also nearly brought a safety car on lap eleven after having clipped the barrier in the hairpin, destroying his front wing. The resulting damage necessitated a second stop for the Renault pilot dropping him to 22nd, with only Ricciardo behind him.
However neither Glock nor Senna’s incidents garnered quite as much coverage as a clash between Massa and Hamilton on the twelfth lap.
Having stopped together the previous tour, the pair emerged onto the circuit line astern. Hamilton, sensing he might take both Ferrari’s, pushed Massa hard, making himself known in the Brazilian’s mirrors.
Alas Hamilton, frustrated at falling behind in yet another race, locked his cold tyres entering turn seven, damaging his front wing and slicing Massa’s right rear Pirelli.
Amidst the calamity and misfortune, both fell rearward, before pitting again for their tyre and wing replacements – Hamilton, though, would suffer further indignity of a drive through penalty moments later leaving the pair 19th (Hamilton) and 20th (Massa).
Making them Last
Collision was not an issue either Vettel or Button were facing – for one thing, the Red Bull man was over ten seconds clear as they rejoined from their first tyre change on lap fourteen.
Yet where the top two streaked away expected, Force India’s Paul di Resta and Sauber rookie Sergio Perez were busy playing the long game, running a clean 3rd and 5th respectively, split only by Alonso.
The Ferrari did eventually take 3rd from di Resta (lap 18), but the Scot’s point had been well and truly made. Di Resta’s first would leave him 8th and on the tail of teammate Adrian Sutil.
Perez eventually did stop on lap fifteen, but only after brushing the barrier exiting turn two, while di Resta carried on for a further four laps, all the while maintaining solid pace. This was proving to be yet another impressive run for the Scot, who set about laying consistently quick times despite the age of his Pirelli rubber.
Sauber applied a similar strategy for Kamui Kobayashi; however this proved to be less successful with the Japanese pilot falling backward from 8th in the run up to his first stop.
There was no doubt that it had been a tough weekend for Kobayashi – a crash in qualifying stranded the Sauber pilot in 17th, locking into a tyre killing battle in the midfield early on. As the race aged, the true effects of that accident were becoming apparent.
Renault’s Vitaly Petrov also attempted a long first stint in the race, leaving the Russian had little else to play with in his poor handling R31. Unable to establish an advantage on those around cost Petrov, who would spend much of the afternoon pottering around in 19th.
Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari kept his Ferrari-powered machine on track until the seventeenth tour, giving him 11th for a time. The Spaniard had qualified 16th – not unexpected for the Toro Rosso – however with overtaking proving difficult, Alguersuari found progress difficult at best.
A quick stop mired him back in 17th.
Retaking the Field…
With the midfield effectively removing themselves, both Massa and Hamilton steadily moved up the order. Come the one-third distance, the Brazilian driver had assumed 11th to the McLaren pilot’s 15th position; however this is where strategies unravelled for the pair.
Sensing a compact top ten up ahead, Ferrari brought Massa in for super-softs as early as lap 24, while McLaren – content in playing the long game – waited a further five tours.
Now on pulse to overtake where and whenever possible, Hamilton surged up the order, taking even Massa before the Brazilian had an opportunity to stop. The Ferrari, once again devouring its tyres, left Massa struggling bravely, but the 2011 Singapore Grand Prix was turning into a losing battle for the Scuderia.
Come the end of the twenty-fifth lap, Hamilton was already on the fringes of the top ten and in fighting mood.
Alonso was also struggling on his second set of Pirelli softs. Having worked exceptionally for a brief period, the Spaniard began to feel the grip quickly ebb away; the tyres stripped of their grip by the corrosive tarmac.
Like before, the Spaniard’s lap times grew longer, allowing Vettel to garner a 34-second advantage by the twenty-third lap. Webber, meanwhile, drew to within one second of the Ferrari.
Alonso would not give the Australian the pleasure of another overtaking move – as Webber took the final corner to start lap twenty-six, Alonso had already dived to the pits to take another set of softs.
…while Others Take Flight
As with earlier, both Mercedes took tyres early (Rosberg, lap 22; Schumacher, lap 24) – the tight and twisty nature of the Singapore streets proving difficult for the power-centric German machines.
Dropping the pair to 8th and 9th respectively (with Rosberg ahead), the silver and turquoise pulled to the rear of Perez by the twenty-ninth lap, with his Pirelli’s beginning to age.
Rosberg – always a keen performer at Singapore – caught Perez napping with a pass into the final corner, only for the Mexican to repass as they fed onto the start / finish straight.
Undeterred, the Mercedes pilot bumped – literally – Perez out of the way into turn one. The Sauber pilot, wrong footed and temporarily off balance, lost time to Schumacher over the next few turns, allowing the veteran to close on the rear of the Mexican.
However, this was to no expert move from Schumacher. In a brief misjudgement, the seven-time world champion wiped away all the good notices recently garnered.
Getting his braking point completely wrong, Schumacher ploughed into the rear of Perez – at thankfully slow speed – launching into the air, sliding nose first into the barrier.
Bewildered, Perez suffered only a right rear puncture, aiming straight for the pits to replace his Pirelli rubber – tyres that would have to last the distance. Schumacher, on the other hand, quickly jumped out of a fairly destroyed Mercedes chassis – its front comprehensively crumpled.
“What happened was what I would call a misunderstanding between Sergio Perez and myself. He was about to go inside and lifted, and I was not expecting him to do that so early, and therefore hit him. It was a pity because my car and the tyres worked well, and therefore the pace was very good.”
Realigning the Race
Those who hadn’t caught the safety car, pitted instantly – including Vettel and Button. Eventually, those who hadn’t made their stop yet followed suit, while the race remained neutralised.
There was still some disadvantage for the McLaren man – with Vettel out front, Button would have to contend with three backmarkers, essentially leaving hi fifth on the road.
For some, the slowing of the race came at just the right time – others, however, had been hurt. Aside from the leaders keeping to the front, di Resta, Perez, Rubens Barrichello (Williams) and Hamilton benefited; they respectively claimed 5th, 8th, 9th and 10th with fresh tyres. Rosberg pitted too, changing to the softs for the duration, slotting into 6th.
Both Ferrari’s were going to find it tough though, with Alonso (3rd) and Massa (15th) on slightly older tyres.
Efficient marshalling made for a brief stoppage, with race starting again on lap thirty-four.
With green flags waving, Vettel shot off into the distance. Button, meanwhile, was left to negotiate the squabbling Jarno Trulli (Lotus), Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT) and Kobayashi, losing nine valuable seconds as he did so. Kobayashi would eventually earn a drive through penalty for ignoring blue flags, unlike the slightly more co-operative Liuzzi and Trulli pairing.
Behind Button, Alonso could not hold off Webber, taking the slightly asleep Alonso into the “Singapore Sling”.
Hamilton was also on a charge. Passes on Barrichello and Perez gave him 8th by lap 35, improving to 5th within four tours with moves on Rosberg and both Force India’s. Catching Alonso would prove to be a more difficult prospect.
Again still heading the field, Sebastian Vettel continued marching on to victory. Although always confident of the win, Button’s unfortunate blockage at the race restart only acted to confirm the win.
One final stop to take on super-softs and the reigning champion was clear to the finish (despite a near clash in the pitlane with Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen), although a litany of backmarkers in the final few miles served only to raise hairs on the back of one’s head and reduce the gap to Button. On this evening, Vettel was unstoppable – again.
“I am very, very pleased with the result today, the car was fantastic all the way through. When we needed to push, we could pull away quite easily, which helped us. When the safety car came out, it didn’t really fit to our plan as we had a gap of about thirty seconds with thirty laps to go, but nevertheless I had a very good restart. I was a bit lucky that there were some back markers between me and Jenson and I was able to get back into the rhythm straight away. I pulled out a gap and I was quite happy.”
For Jenson Button, it was a case of close, but not close enough. Traffic helped the former champion close to within two seconds of Vettel at the line.
“I gave it everything – but, in the end, we didn’t quite have the pace to make up the gap. Still, I think we had the best possible strategy for both Saturday and Sunday, and I couldn’t realistically have asked for a better result this weekend. In fact, we didn’t make any mistakes this weekend and, as a team, I think we did the best possible job with the equipment we had.”
Whether a realistic opportunity to pass the Red Bull existed is unknown – Vettel may simply have put his foot down had he really felt threatened from behind.
Another podium for Mark Webber still brought some disappointment after having started 2nd.
The Australian had little to worry about once clear of Alonso, but Button was simply too quick in the latter stages of the race, leaving Webber nearly thirty seconds clear of the leading pair at the flag.
“Unfortunately I’ve found myself having to come back through the field too often this season. I can’t make the starts I made last year at the moment. I have to keep working harder because it’s quite frustrating and it’s quite risky to have to come back through and try to regain positions on the track, particularly when the DRS isn’t working.”
Having fallen to 5th during his final stop on lap 47, Webber would retake both Hamilton and Alonso over the next two tours to secure his podium, yet an air of disappointment still clung to the Australian.
The Best Reward Possible..?
Once again Ferrari were shown up in the final stages. Like the leaders, Alonso would stop late, but in the aftermath of the safety car, the Spaniard lost close to a minute to Vettel.
Admittedly, his lap 49 tyre change did earn Alonso a little luck. With a set of fresh Pirelli’s, the gleaming Ferrari emerged in front of a quintet containing di Resta, Rosberg, Sutil, Perez – and Hamilton. Such was Alonso’s immediate tyre advantage, 4th place was virtually assured.
Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, came close to improving his eventual outcome. After a short spell matching Alonso for pace, the McLaren pilot began to reel Alonso in, before his team pulled him in for his last set of tyres.
It proved to be an unsuccessful gamble. Hamilton’s instant pace was nullified immediately as to his horror; he exited the pit lane behind the four-car fight, led by di Resta. With the squabbling quartet not stopping, Hamilton applied force to bring himself back to 5th, thanks in part to the wearing tyres of the group ahead; but by then, Alonso had disappeared.
Irrespective of the eventual result, it was a marvellous comeback by Hamilton, following his lap twelve brain fade.
Paul di Resta hung on to 6th in his Force India, but as a measure of how much his tyres had degraded, the Scott lost fifty seconds to Hamilton in the final eight laps. It was another eyebrow raising performance for di Resta, who is continuing to acquit himself well against his experienced teammate.
Nico Rosberg could do no better than 7th, but it is unlikely Mercedes believed that could do better either. On a circuit unsuited to Mercedes naturally fast flowing concept, points were a simple enough reward.
Adrian Sutil made it two Force India’s in the top eight with another solid, if unspectacular race, although the German pilot came alive late on as he pushed Rosberg to the limit.
Felipe Massa did make something of a comeback eventually, but it was a rather sluggish one. A lowly 15th following the safety, the Brazilian climbed to 10th until his final stop on lap 41, felling him to 13th.
From there, Massa plucked off several drivers on worn tyres, but it was late passes on Barrichello (lap 56) and Perez (lap 61) that garnered some reward. With the early incident still lingering, Massa was still clearly furious with Hamilton post-race, sarcastically confronting the McLaren pilot in the media pen post-race. This was really just another in a long list of difficult days for Massa in 2011.
Massa’s potential replacement, Sergio Perez, is still impressing. The Mexican’s long run strategy was ruined slightly by the collision with Schumacher, but a point nonetheless was still a solid day for the Swiss team.
Outside the points, Pastor Maldonado had an anonymous day in an anonymous car at Singapore to come home 11th. Despite always lingering in the top twelve, the Venezuelan never truly looked like scoring a point, as there always seemed to be a midfield runner going quickly at any time.
The same could said for Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso) and Rubens Barrichello – both of whom had virtually silent runs to 12th and 13th without featuring much in the race.
Kamui Kobayashi took 14th spot, two laps off the pace following a poor run. A late stop left him 15th with five laps remaining, but a quick pass on Alguersuari bought Kobayashi another place.
The Renault’s were woeful. Completely unsuited to Marina Bay’s tight and twisty confines, both Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov ambled along, taking 15th and 17th. It was probably Petrov’s poorest F1 performance, spending much of the event losing out to the Lotus’.
In fact, it was Heikki Kovalainen that split the Renault’s in 16th place. Both Lotus’ had a solid Singapore run, with Jarno Trulli reaching 11th at one point in the event. Sadly Trulli lost out to a gearbox failure in the final laps while running 21st.
Indeed, with a short time left, Kobayashi, Senna, Kovalainen and Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari formed a four-way battle for 15th-18th, until Alguersuari slammed into the tunnel barrier on the penultimate lap. Jerome d’Ambrosio took 18th in his Virgin Racing Cosworth.
Unsurprisingly, both HRT’s finished last of the still running, with Daniel Ricciardo (19th) and Vitantonio Liuzzi (20th) four laps down.
It means Vettel needs a point – a single point in Japan to be crowned world champion. In a season when he’s been outside the top two only once, it’s hard to see anyone stopping him at all.
Race Rating: 2 out of 5
2011 Singapore Grand Prix (Rd 14, 61 laps) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h59:06.537 2. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 1.737 3. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 29.279 4. Alonso Ferrari + 55.449 5. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 1:07.766 6. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1:51.067 7. Rosberg Mercedes + 1 lap 8. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap 9. Massa Ferrari + 1 lap 10. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 11. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 12. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap 13. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap 14. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 2 laps 15. Senna Renault + 2 laps 16. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 2 laps 17. Petrov Renault + 2 laps 18. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 19. Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth + 4 laps 20. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 4 laps 21. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 5 laps Fastest lap: Button, 1:48.454 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Trulli Lotus-Renault 48 Schumacher Mercedes 29 Glock Virgin-Cosworth 10 World Championship, Drivers (Rd 14) 1. Vettel 309 2. Button 185 3. Alonso 184 4. Webber 182 5. Hamilton 168 6. Massa 84 7. Rosberg 62 8. Schumacher 52 9. Heidfeld 34 10. Petrov 34 11. Sutil 28 12. Kobayashi 27 13. Di Resta 20 14. Alguersuari 16 15. Buemi 13 16. Perez 9 17. Barrichello 4 18. Senna 2 19. Maldonado 1 World Championship, Constructors (Rd 14) 1. Red Bull-Renault 491 2. McLaren-Mercedes 353 3. Ferrari 268 4. Mercedes 114 5. Renault 70 6. Force India-Mercedes 48 7. Sauber-Ferrari 36 8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 29 9. Williams-Cosworth 5