With so much media attention prior to the Singapore Grand Prix there was some apprehension about whether or not the first Formula 1 night race would live up to all the hype. After the processional Valencian Grand Prix a few weeks ago there were fears that the Marina Bay circuit would produce another underwhelming two hours of racing ‘entertainment’, thanks to a bumpy track surface which only got worse off-line, meaning that overtaking opportunities were few and far between.
Thanks to Nelson Piquet, however, an early safety car turned the race on its head and made it a memorable affair. Having driven a near-perfect Q3 lap, Felipe Massa took pole with Lewis Hamilton completing the front row, over half a second slower than the Ferrari driver. The scene was set for a great battle the next day as both the main title contenders went head-to-head around the five-kilometre circuit.
Massa pulled away in the opening stages and Hamilton had no answer to his speed, dropping slowly further back in second place. Kimi Räikkönen, having qualified third, couldn’t match his team-mate’s speed either and fell four to five seconds behind Hamilton, before starting to catch him.
The front-runners were approaching their first pitstop windows when Piquet lost the rear of his Renault on lap 13 and hit the wall, which meant that when the resultant safety car took to the track Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg found themselves running on empty and were forced to stop while the pitlane was closed. Others were luckier and managed to avoid a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for breaking the quite frankly ridiculous rule of pitting under the safety car.
Once the pitlane opened much of the rest of the field dived in. It was going to be tight as to whether Hamilton or Massa would get out in front, but as the Ferrari pitstop light turned green, Massa unleashed 750bhp and blasted away from his box… dragging with him the still-attached fuel hose and, in the process, taking out a mechanic. Ferrari is being understandably cagey about who is to blame, yet from the replay it was clear that Massa did no wrong. All drivers are taught to ignore what is being done around the car and to keep focused on the lollipop, or in Ferrari’s case its fateful traffic light system. The Brazilian driver did exactly that and unbelievably was given the green light before the crew was finished refuelling. Having noticed the five-metre long hose dangling from the left-hand side of the car he pulled over further down the pitlane and waited as Ferrari mechanics sprinted towards him and furiously unclipped the device.
The entire affair lasted a nail-biting 122 seconds, but amazingly Massa still left the pits on the same lap as everyone else, meaning that he could catch the tail end of the pack before the safety car drew off the circuit. However, not only had he left his pit with the fuel hose still attached to his car, but once again – and no doubt to the Force India driver’s disbelief – Massa was given the green light at the same time as Adrian Sutil was passing by, and the two narrowly avoided a collision. Having received a 10,000 euro fine for the same offence at Valencia, it appeared that Massa’s luck was finally up and he was given a drive-through penalty, effectively ending his chance of scoring any points. It is sad that, after all the finger-pointing and debate over the past few weeks, the Scuderia could effectively have thrown away the championship thanks to its traffic light system. Still, it wasn’t long ago that the front-runners agreed that the team who made the fewest mistakes would win the title. How right they were.
Back on track and Alonso, who ran an aggressive first stint and pitted before the safety car, found himself up front and in the pound seats as Kubica and Rosberg were still to serve their drive-through penalties. The Spaniard drove a faultless race and even posted a seemingly unnecessary fastest lap in the final moments. Unwittingly, Piquet had proved to be one of the most helpful ‘second drivers’ of the season, as without his mistake Alonso would have done well to finish in the points. Fernando admitted as much, saying: “Without the safety car maybe I would have finished in 15th or 14th. Wining a Grand Prix here just seemed to be impossible because we missed our chance yesterday in qualifying, but we were very fortunate today and it’s a superb result for the team. We chose a very aggressive strategy and we had a bit of luck, but we had the pace and the car was fantastic throughout the weekend.”
The win is something that I fear has come too late in the season for Alonso not to be looking elsewhere next year. But he was, as always, coy about his plans for 2009, saying: “It (the win) doesn’t change my decision for next year. But as I have always said Renault will be my first priority because I feel at home in this team.”
Hamilton also found himself with the front-runners, although he was stuck behind Coulthard as the others disappeared into the distance. The McLaren was no doubt faster than the Red Bull, but the even the self-proclaimed ‘master of overtaking’ had problems finding a way past the veteran, before eventually pulling off a typically superb move.
If Ferrari’s race had been bad so far, there was a light at the end of the tunnel as Räikkönen had managed to climb back up the grid following a delay waiting behind Massa’s car at the first pitstop. Any hope of retaining the lead of the constructors’ championship was dashed, however, when he managed to embed his Ferrari in the wall four laps from the end. I doubt whether anyone dressed in red will want to remember their first night race, especially the moment when McLaren’s mechanics cheered on their Ferrari counterparts as they sprinted to the rescue of Massa.
Thanks to some very quick laps following his ill-timed pitstop Rosberg managed to emerge from his stop-and-go without losing too much ground and, with the Williams car looking particularly effective, held on to take second behind Alonso.
So, F1’s first night race was a resounding success. However, it certainly wasn’t a ‘walk on the streets’ for the drivers as not only did they stay on European time, meaning they witnessed just a few hours of daylight a day and ate breakfast at a bizarre time of 2pm, but the circuit was so demanding with its 24 corners and endless bumps that those who could did well just to finish the race.
Let’s hope they can smooth out the track surface before next year, as this race was undoubtedly a highlight of the season. Let’s not forget though that if it wasn’t for Piquet’s typically early exit, or indeed the traffic light tragedy, we may have been watching a Valencia part deux.