Lewis Hamilton came through from 5th on the grid to win the Singapore Grand Prix yesterday, but it required some luck, skill and a start line crash that took out three of the top four qualifiers.
In a race peppered with safety car periods, Daniel Ricciardo drove well to score a podium in his ailing Red Bull, while Valtteri Bottas made it two Mercedes’ on the podium, with a quiet drive to 3rd.
‘What a day – I can’t believe it, I’m so happy! I came in today and I saw that I was raining and I knew that this balances everything out. I love racing in the rain, then everything unfolded in the beginning.’
That’s one way to put it. Realistically, Mercedes were nowhere for much of this weekend. Their pace was weak compared to the Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s – a facet fully exposed in qualifying – and yet a mistake by Ferrari poleman Sebastian Vettel initiated a start crash that took Vettel, his teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen out of the running instantly. But, oh, what a mistake!
With rain having fallen in the hour leading up to the green light, parts of the track were sodden, while other sections were merely wet, but liveable. Thankfully, there was no call for a safety car start, although Haas’ Romain Grosjean did get in a lively moan on the warm-up lap, but that is not completely unexpected.
As the lights counted up and flashed off, wheel spinning away from the line, Vettel saw Verstappen coming on the inside, but missed Raikkonen’s blistering start on the inside of both of them. ‘I had an average start and then I moved slightly to the left trying to defend my position from Max,’ said a disappointed Vettel.
Raikkonen’s ace start mixed with Vettel’s swerve to the left only served to squeeze the helpless Verstappen and the trio pinballed off of each other, with Verstappen and Raikkonen clashing and Vettel and taking another hit as the crash unfolded. The Finn was phlegmatic as always: ‘I don’t think I could have really done anything differently to avoid it, apart from doing a bad start and not being there,’ Raikkonen said flatly afterward. Had all gone to plan, it should have been a Ferrari 1-2 going into turn one.
Although one could point the finger of blame at Vettel, it was a racing incident and no additional sanction was declared or deserved. In the eyes of Ferrari and Vettel, Hamilton taking the lead was sanction enough.Verstappen, meanwhile, was a touch more blunt about the outcome. ‘My start was a little bit better than [Vettel’s] and I think he saw that so he tried to move to the left to squeeze me out of the line a bit but he did not know Kimi was on my other side.
‘I think it wasn’t the smartest move and you can’t make excuses for it when you are fighting for a world championship. Kimi had a great start and was alongside me very quickly, I didn’t try and defend that as I knew it would be a long race, he then started to squeeze me also, at which point there wasn’t a lot I could do.’
In the middle of all the start melee, McLaren racer Fernando Alonso had made a very good start and had jumped from 8th to 3rd, having missed much of the initial carnage, only to be pummelled by the spinning Raikkonen and Verstappen as he negotiated the first bend. ‘I wasn’t aware of what was happening on the inside,’ Alonso said. ‘All I know is that at Turn One some cars crashed and hit us. In that situation, you are just a passenger, there’s nothing you can do.’ Alonso continued for a time, but in the end eight laps was all he could muster, as damage to his ailing MCL32 ended his day prematurely.
Aside from the crash, a good start by Hamilton allowed him to jump the slow-moving Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) and when the recovering Vettel spun again on the straight exiting turn three – leaving Vettel facing oncoming traffic – the lead belonged to the Englishman as the safety car was called.
Such was the mesh of carbon fibre through the opening chicane, the field was brought through the pitlane until the restart on lap six and from there, it did not take much for Hamilton to draw away from Ricciardo. It was an element that surprised the Mercedes leader somewhat. ‘Starting on the Intermediates I thought it was going to be much closer pace-wise. These conditions give you the opportunity to really make a difference with your driving.’
The Red Bull’s had been expected to do well; however Ricciardo’s RB13 began losing oil pressure from the gearbox early doors, rendering his charge null and void. In theory, the slow start didn’t help Ricciardo’s cause, but the Australian was – for once – thankful for the poor getaway. ‘My start was quite slow off the line. In hindsight probably a good thing, because it allowed the chaos to unfold in front of me.’
The gap grew slowly – Ricciardo’s mechanical issues served to dampen Hamilton’s own handling issues at a Marina Bay circuit, with the lead growing to just 5.1s when the second safety car was called – this time for Daniil Kvyat, who planted his Toro Rosso in the barrier only a turn after passing Magnussen. ‘Unfortunately I made a mistake and missed a good opportunity of scoring a good result today. I managed to overtake Magnussen and straight after that I locked my front wheel and went straight into the wall…’
Ricciardo pitted, but Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz (Toro Rosso), Lance Stroll (Williams) and Grosjean all stayed out – all of whom having started on inters.
Interestingly, having run 3rd and 5th in the early running, both Renault’s of Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer decided to stay out an extra lap before swapping their wet Pirelli’s for intermediates. The delay dropped both to 5th and 7th respectively, with Bottas climbing to 3rd, ahead of the impressive Sainz (4th), with Sergio Perez (Force India) running 6th.
Upon the restart on lap 15, Hamilton again pulled away from Ricciardo, only this time the rate was less emphatic. With the track drying very slowly, the Mercedes runner made the best of the damp and greasy conditions and was almost immediately lapping in the 2’01s range while those behind remained in the 2’02s-2’04s range.
Building a gap to Ricciardo, Hamilton was giving the Formula One field a masterclass performance. Come the halfway mark, the three-time champion became the first man to break the two-minute barrier and repeated this feat a few more occasions when he stopped to change from inters to Pirelli’s ultra-soft tyres on lap 29. Ricciardo and Bottas had actually done the same on lap 28, while Sainz swapped over to super-softs on lap 27. Felipe Massa (Williams) and Kevin Magnussen (Haas) had got the ball rolling on lap 24, although arguably this was a touch early.
At first, Ricciardo made the best of the ultra-softs and took a modicum of time out of Hamilton’s lead. The only problem was, Hamilton was still over 9s down the road and it would require more than a tenth-or-two per lap to make any significant difference to the lead.
Only the race hit another bump in the road when Marcus Ericsson binned his unforgiving Sauber while entering the Anderson Bridge. The crash itself was minor, but the Swede’s awkward finishing position ensured a tow vehicle was required to move the Ferrari-powered Sauber.
For Ericsson, the incident was the result of a double-whammy, beginning on lap 27, when he pitted and changed to the Pirelli soft tyres – the slowest tyres on offer for the weekend. The stop was not a pretty one and Ericsson lost 20s in the pits, before stopping again four tours later to change to ultra-softs. ‘I was pushing hard to make up for lost time, and went a bit over the limit,’ said Ericsson, sheepishly adding,‘Unfortunately, that caused me to spin out of the race.’
The final restart came on lap 42 and, as before, Hamilton eased himself away from Ricciardo, who was now under threat from a resurgent Bottas. The race leader was urged by the pitwall not to pull too much of a gap, lest he bring Ricciardo and Bottas with him and create a gap for them to fall into to allow for a late tyre change should another safety car period come to play. But it was not necessary.
Hamilton opened up the gap to Ricciardo again and was comfortable in doing so, building a 4.5s lead come the flag, securing his third consecutive win in the process. At a venue where the Anglo-German squad were expecting the worst, the race incredibly fell into Hamilton and Mercedes’ lap, gifting the Englishman a 28-point lead thanks to Vettel’s non-score. ‘We came to a track that was potentially our weakest circuit and we leave with a win like this and so many points – that’s a very fortunate scenario for us.
‘It was the first time for all of us driving here in the rain, so it was a massive challenge. But I love that when you have to rise to the toughest of challenges, that’s the most exciting part for me. Then it was all about staying focused and not making any mistakes.’
Despite this, one can’t help but wonder how much more Hamilton had available to him had he been under real pressure. From nowhere, he scored the fastest race lap – a 1:45.008s – three tours from the end, setting a time that was almost a second faster than what he had been registering up until that moment. Satisfied, he dropped back to his “normal” pace to the chequered flag.
For Ricciardo, the eighteen-points for 2nd place gave the Australian a welcome gap over Raikkonen in the Driver’s Championship, but considering the pace the Red Bull’s showed over Friday and Saturday, it was not difficult to understand if he were deflated. ‘Normally I’m happy with a podium; obviously it’s great. It’s more that we didn’t have the pace that we showed on Friday in the long run,’ said the Red Bull man. ‘Then in the first few laps I felt we were okay in the wet but then I felt we were a bit harsh on the tyres. Even when we pitted and had fresher tyres, we couldn’t really make an impact on Lewis.’
The subtle loss of oil pressure added another element to his race, but as Ricciardo noted, when it came to the rain, the playing field was levelled. ‘The rain made it all pretty hectic today. Everyone was in the same boat though and we hadn’t driven in the wet here before so it’s all about switching on early, being aware of the situation and trying to adapt as quick as you can. Of course I came here to win and really wanted it, but second place is great and I’m not going to complain about it.’
After a brief surge, Bottas fell backwards again in the later laps, but the Finn had more than enough of a gap ahead of Sainz to not worry too much about the Spaniard. It was a curious performance from Bottas, who appeared to be a geniune threat up until the summer break, but who has fallen by the wayside in the races since.
Scoring his 10th podium of the year, Bottas acknowledged that his Mercedes W08 felt better in the dry conditions that came later in the race, but the early wet laps were tricky. He was fortunate in one sense – a bad start was softened by the Vettel / Verstappen / Raikkonen clash, but from 6th on the grid, Bottas was passed by Hulkenbeg and Perez, while Palmer got by on the lap six restart. ‘Our approach today, it was all about damage-limitation. I think this was pretty good damage limitation today, so we can be quite happy about that.’
Staying rewarded Bottas, but beyond that, it was not a weekend to shout about.
One driver who had plenty to celebrate was Sainz. The Toro Rosso man ran 9th in the early laps, with a bold lap nine pass on Esteban Ocon gifting another position. There is some irony that it was the crash by teammate Kvyat that helped propel Sainz up the order – as with Bottas, staying out proved a worthwhile tactic that gained him four positions in one swoop. Thankfully for Sainz, such was the lack of heavy tyre degradation, he found ample grid against those behind, despite running on older rubber.
The move to supersofts meant his pace was slower than the chasing Perez; however Sainz had just enough speed to solidify the position and keep the Mexican at bay, to score his best finish in Formula One. ‘I have to say that the most difficult part of the race for me was the start of my stint on the supersoft – it was not easy at all! From then onwards it was all about defending from [Perez], who had been faster than us on Friday and also was on ultras! It was very difficult to keep him behind, looking in my mirrors the whole time, but in the end we did it!’
A very worthy effort.
Perez eventually came home 5th, just 2.6s shy of Sainz. It had a brilliant start by the Force India racer, who jumped from 12th to 4th amidst the festival of carbon fibre on the opening lap. Pitting at the second safety car period cost Perez positions to Bottas and Sainz, but the Mercedes-powered racer pressed hard thereafter, but could do nothing about Sainz ahead.
Perez’ 6th place became 5th when Hulkenberg pitted with an oil leak on lap 38 – an issue that would cause the Renault’s retirement nine laps later. Having run 3rd in the early laps, it was a great shame for Hulkenberg who finally like breaking his 128-race run without a podium – this result now makes the German the driver who has competed the most races without a podium in Formula One history. ‘It was a very disappointing race, you put in a lot of hard work throughout the weekend and then these things happen,’ a disappointed Hulkenberg said. ‘It’s not great but it is a technical sport and a team sport. Unfortunately we had some technical issues with the engine and we had to retire the car.’
There were celebrations on the other side of the garage when Jolyon Palmer – finally – picked up his first points of the season with a fine drive to 6th place. It is a good response from Palmer, whom was confirmed to be dropped by Renault last week. ‘I’m so happy, it’s been a long time coming but today everything fell into place. It was a tricky race with the drama at the start and the heavy rain but the circumstances put us in a good place to score some points,’ commented the clearly delighted Englishman.
Stoffel Vandoorne drove another excellent race to 7th place in the McLaren-Honda. The Belgian’s race was compromised slightly after he ran over debris on the first lap and then further still when he lost nine seconds during his second pitstop, costing him a place to Palmer.
Stroll secured four points for Williams with a solid drive to 8th place, despite starting a lowly 18th. Pre-race, Williams split their driver strategies with Stroll beginning on inters and Massa starting on wets – a strategy that worked best for the Canadian teen.
Romain Grosjean took 9th place for Haas. The French/Swiss racer enjoyed a brief battle with Stroll and later Ocon, the latter of whom would finish 10th to round out the point scorers.
Felipe Massa endured a poor day with three stops that hampered his race – he came home 11th. From wets, the Brazilian left it too long and stayed out until lap 17, before pitting for inters, only swap to new ultra-softs seven tours later. Massa stopped again for ultra-softs on lap 38, before taking his Williams machine home.
Massa finished just one place ahead of the final runner, Pascal Wehrlein (Sauber), who ended the Singapore Grand Prix two laps adrift of the winner. Like Massa, Wherlein started on wets, but inexplicably, was brought in for new wets on lap two and then left on aging rubber until lap 21. Thereafter he managed seven laps on interes, before pitting for ultra-softs on lap 28 and then doing the same again nine tours later.
On a day where some of the big names were taken clean out of the race, there is an opportunity for the midfield and lower runner to take some significant points, but strategic thinking needs to be pinpoint accurate. On Sunday, this did not come to pass for the Swiss squad.
The pre-race formbook said that Mercedes would take some punishment at Marina Bay, yet the opposite happened. Vettel’s startline implosion opened the door up for a dominant Hamilton run to the flag and instead of retaking the lead, the Ferrari racer dropped 28 points behind the Briton, while Mercedes opened up a 102 point lead in the Constructor’s Championship.
This was a disastrous day for Ferrari and the glum faces on TV said everything.