Lewis Hamilton strengthens his grip on the F1 title with a dominant win, while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen makes the Singapore podium for the first time in second place.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
Arguably the biggest news of the entire Singapore Grand Prix weekend came before it started, when it was announced that Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc would take the place of Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari from next season on a multi-year deal. The super-impressive Monegasque had been thought of as a nailed-on successor to the Finnish veteran for months, but what was more surprising was that Leclerc’s move from Ferrari-aligned Sauber amounted to a job swap, the 38-year-old Raikkonen re-joining the Swiss team he made his debut for way back in Australia 2001.
Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo spoke for many of his peers when he said he was a “little bit” surprised by Raikkonen’s career arc coming full circle. “I suspected Ferrari would make the change they’ve made, but I thought if Kimi left then he was leaving, riding dirt bikes and spending time with his kids,” the Australian said. “His body language doesn’t always show he enjoys the sport, but obviously he likes it more than we think he does …”
Raikkonen’s current employers looked to be in the ascendancy as the teams went through the three practice sessions under the night lights of Singapore, but when it came to qualifying, championship leader Lewis Hamilton took his Mercedes to another level, beating last year’s pole lap by (no misprint) nearly three-and-a-half seconds to snare his 79th career pole. When you’ve had as much Saturday success as the Brit has – Hamilton has more poles than any driver in F1 history – topping qualifying might not be as exciting as it would be for another driver, but this was a lap that left him almost speechless. Every apex kissed, little or no wheelspin, millimetres from the walls – it was sublime. “That lap felt like magic,” he beamed afterwards.
For those wondering about the rate of progress in F1; Hamilton’s first Singapore pole lap, for McLaren in 2009, was 11 seconds slower than his time for Mercedes this year. We’ll just let that sink in …
Alongside him on the front row with what he felt was the best qualifying lap of his career was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was three-tenths of a second off pole, but smiling like he’d taken top spot. “If I can take a metre against Lewis at the start, and get in the lead, there’s a good chance of a win as it’s a hard track to pass on,” he said, optimistically.
Not so happy were Ferrari, with Sebastian Vettel (third) and Raikkonen (fifth) not able to translate their practice pace when it counted against Hamilton, while the man who split the red cars, Valtteri Bottas, was seven-tenths of a second behind his Mercedes teammate, scratching his head wondering where Hamilton’s pace came from.
Verstappen was top dog at Red Bull again, Ricciardo looking strong until Q3 before finishing sixth, nearly a second off pole and six-tenths behind his teammate, while Sergio Perez was king of the ‘B’ division for Racing Point Force India, finishing seventh at a track where he typically races well, but qualifies poorly. “I think I produced a nearly perfect lap on a track where it is hard to achieve it,” the Mexican said.
Elsewhere, Haas were delighted (Romain Grosjean was eighth) and baffled (Kevin Magnussen was 16th) in equal measure, while Fernando Alonso made it a perfect 15-0 record against McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne when he qualified 11th, the Belgian out in Q1 again in 18th. It was worse still for Williams, where Sergey Sirotkin was 19th and 1.4secs behind Vandoorne, while teammate Lance Stroll was nearly a tenth of a second slower than the Russian rookie. “It was really tough … more of a survival,” Sirotkin admitted.
Come race day, it was the usual Singapore talking points that were front of mind – would the 61-lap distance be completed within the maximum two-hour race window, and when, not if, the safety car would make an appearance given there had been eight safety car periods in the past five Singapore races.
More importantly for the championship, could Vettel peg back some of his 30-point deficit to Hamilton at a circuit where Ferrari, on paper at least, should be stronger?
The race in exactly 69 words*
Hamilton extended his championship lead to 40 points with six races remaining with a controlled victory, his fourth in Singapore and seventh for the season coming by a margin of over eight seconds from Verstappen, who took his maiden Singapore podium. Vettel rounded out the rostrum after a lonely drive to third in a race where the top six qualifiers finished in the same positions after 61 soporific laps.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)
At least he saw the chequered flag … sixth for Ricciardo, after he’d finished second on the Singapore streets for the past three years, wasn’t much to get excited about for Red Bull’s Australian, but seeing the finish line after three mechanical retirements in the four previous races was at least a tiny step in the right direction.
Starting sixth, Ricciardo made no headway in the opening stint of the race, but was able to roll a strategic dice with no pressure from behind, staying out longer than his teammate Verstappen and the Mercedes/Ferrari pairings to delay his sole pit stop to discard his hypersoft tyres until lap 27. He inherited the lead when Raikkonen pitted on lap 21 to head a race for the first time since he won in Monaco in May, and elected to fit ultrasoft tyres for the remainder of the race at his stop, the pace of the softer rubber theoretically enabling him to catch fourth-placed Bottas and Raikkonen in fifth ahead of him.
Ricciardo surged late in the race, setting several fastest laps along the way, but was never close enough to mount an attack on the Finnish pair, finishing nine-tenths of a second behind the second Ferrari and a whopping 45 seconds behind his teammate. Sixth in qualifying, sixth in the race and – not coincidentally – sixth in the world championship with 126 points, 22 behind Verstappen (who he led by as many as 37 points earlier in the season).
What the result means
There’s been several good Grands Prix this season, and even a couple of great ones. And then there was Singapore, where the top six cars finished where they started after 111 minutes of “racing”, the seventh-placed finisher (Alonso) was 50 seconds behind the driver in front of him (Ricciardo), every other driver was lapped at least once, and where there was precisely one overtake among the top six – through the pit-stop phase of the race – among the top three teams after the first lap.
Why? What made qualifying so exciting 24 hours before and saw record times tumble was the use of the hypersoft tyre for the first time, which ensured the top 10 qualifiers would do everything in their power to extend their first stint of the race so as to not have to pit more than once to cover the 61 laps. On tyres that Pirelli suspected might last 10-15 laps, Ricciardo eked his out to lap 27, while Vettel was the first of the fastest six drivers to pit on lap 14. How? By not pushing: the opening laps of the race after the manic opening corners were run at lap times 11 seconds slower than qualifying.
Vettel’s opening-lap pass of Verstappen at Turn 7 after using the superior grunt of the Ferrari engine to usurp the Dutchman’s Renault-powered Red Bull looked to have put the German into play to challenge title rival Hamilton, but Ferrari’s early pit stop – and the decision to fit ultrasoft tyres – backfired when Vettel found himself bottlenecked behind Perez for two laps on resuming, meaning Verstappen could pit three laps later, fit the more durable soft tyre, and sneak out of the pits just ahead to regain second place, which he held until the end.
With fading tyres and more than likely fading motivation, Vettel fell to 39secs behind Hamilton at the flag, and now needs to score an average of seven points more than his Mercedes rival in every race for the remainder of the season to win the title. Given Hamilton has finished either first or second for the past six races, that sounds like a very, very tall order.
For historical purposes …
Magnussen may have finished 18th – or, if you prefer, second-last – after a weekend when he could never get on the pace of Haas teammate Grosjean, or most of the rest of the field. But the Dane did set the fastest race lap (1min 41.905secs on lap 50) for the first time in his 76-race F1 career, and became the first F1 driver in his family to achieve the feat; father Jan, who started 24 races between 1995-98, never managed it.
The number to know
100: the percentage of races in Singapore to feature a safety car intervention. Esteban Ocon’s meeting with the Turn 3 wall on the first lap (more of which later) made it 15 safety car periods in 11 races at one of the calendar’s most unforgiving tracks.
Look no further than Alonso here, who took McLaren’s best result since Azerbaijan 10 races ago with seventh, using a marathon 38-lap first stint on ultrasoft tyres starting outside of the top 10 to leapfrog Grosjean, Perez and Renault pair Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg and maintain a strong pace throughout. Six points for the team after it had taken just four between its two drivers from the previous four races gave McLaren reason to smile in what has been a rough season.
It wasn’t all bad for Sainz and Hulkenberg either – eighth for the Spaniard, and 10th for his German teammate, saw Renault score five points on a day when Haas went scoreless (Grosjean 15th, Magnussen 18th) and increase its lead over the American team in the constructors’ championship to 15 points.
Singapore was a welcome return to the points for Sauber’s Leclerc, too; the 2019 Ferrari driver was ninth for his first top-10 finish in six races, a wretched run that included three non-finishes.
Those who lost out
The ‘new’ Force India lost out big-time in Singapore, when Perez nudged teammate Ocon into the wall on the opening lap to make the Frenchman the first (and eventually only) retirement of the race. Ocon was unimpressed with Perez squeezing him into the outside barrier; Perez said he was unsighted and had nowhere to go.
It was a rough race for the pink-hued team, with Perez later copping a drive-through penalty after swerving into Sirotkin after he passed the Russian at Turn 17 on lap 33, the Mexican’s frustration boiling over after being snookered behind the slower Williams for several laps.
Sirotkin didn’t endear himself to many of his rivals on Sunday, given a five-second time penalty for pushing Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley into the wall late in the race, while the Williams driver fought Grosjean’s Haas like crazy as the pair were being lapped by the leaders on lap 38, Hamilton nearly losing position to Verstappen and commenting “these guys are crazy” to his team. Grosjean was later given a five-second penalty for ignoring blue flags as he baulked Verstappen as his battle with Sirotkin raged.
After jetting all the way to Asia (while staying on European time for the night event of Singapore), F1 hits reverse and heads back to the northern hemisphere bound for Russia (September 30), which hosts the fifth world championship Grand Prix held at the circuit that winds its way around the stadiums used for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Which, naturally, comes before Suzuka in Japan a week later (who organises these calendars?) Bottas will be one driver keen to see Russia come up on the schedule as he searches for his first win of 2018; the Finn was victorious in Sochi 12 months ago, while Mercedes has won all four Grands Prix at the venue, which is bad news for Vettel and everyone else.