Mark Webber’s exploding engine apart, there were rather more fireworks after the Singapore Grand Prix than occurred during its course. As a lesson in race management, though, Sebastian Vettel’s third straight Marina Bay victory was pretty illuminating. The German led all but the first few metres and was able to conjure a comfortable lead as and whenever he pleased. His rhythm was broken only by a lengthy safety car period, caused when future team-mate Daniel Ricciardo thumped the Turn 18 tyre wall, but ultimately it made no difference. When the race resumed, the world championship leader simply vanished once more…
Before the start, the track’s breadth – or lack thereof – was apparent during the fortnightly maelstrom that precedes every race. As swarms of VIP guests soaked up the atmosphere on the grid, Bernie Ecclestone was pincered by a cocktail of camera crews and cars. He was almost clipped by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus, as mechanics wheeled it up the centre of the track, and had to all but lean on Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari to permit Lewis Hamilton clear passage.
Things weren’t quite that crowded into Turn One, although Nico Rosberg profited from a better launch to drag ahead of Vettel as they approached the opening left-hander. The Mercedes teetered wide over the kerb, however, and Vettel recaptured the lead through Turn Three. “The start was quite difficult,” Vettel said, “but fortunately Nico went too deep in Turn One. That was crucial…”
It would be as difficult as things got. He was 1.9 seconds clear after one lap, 4.1 within two and pulled away rather less dramatically thereafter, with Rosberg holding second from Fernando Alonso – a wonderful start catapulted him from seventh to third by the apex of Turn Two – Mark Webber, Grosjean, Hamilton, Felipe Massa, Jenson Button and Nico Hülkenberg.
Every driver bar Adrian Sutil started on super-soft Pirellis and the tyre stops began in earnest on lap 10, although the leaders stayed out fior longer: Massa came in on lap 12, Webber and Button 13, Alonso 14 and Rosberg, Grosjean and Hamilton 15. Vettel, though, kept pressing on and didn’t come in until lap 17, by which stage he was the best part of half a minute clear of Rosberg. He resumed with an eight-second lead and started to increase that gradually… until the aforementioned Ricciardo mimicked many a previous Singapore shunt at Turn 18, the sharp left that runs beneath a sizeable grandstand. “I’d made a bad start,” he said, “and lost four or five places off the line. I was trying to recover lost ground and simply made an error.”
With the Toro Rosso minus its front right wheel, and partially occupying the racing line, the safety car was scrambled. “It came out at the worst possible time for us,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, “because we wouldn’t have been able to make it to the end if we’d come in at that point.”
The Ferraris, Lotus-Renaults and McLarens pitted, while Vettel, Rosberg, Webber and Hamilton stayed out, with Alonso running fifth from Grosjean, Paul di Resta (whose first stint had lasted 20 laps), Massa, Button and Räikkönen. “We told Seb to stay out,” Horner said, “and that he’d have about 15 laps to rebuild a decent lead – which had to be half a minute or so if he wanted to pit again without losing track position. We weren’t sure he’d be able to do it, mind…”
The answer was immediately apparent. When the race restarted at the end of lap 30, Vettel had pulled a full second clear by the time he crossed the line – and added another 2.2sec to that on his next flying lap. “His pace,” was Horner, “was absolutely sensational.”
By lap 41, when Rosberg pitted after a slowish second stint (the team blamed debris lodged in his front wing) that had most front-runners bottled up just behind, Vettel was almost 25 seconds clear. Once the Mercs and Webber had come in for fresh tyres – all going for mediums – Vettel was more than half a minute to the good. He made his second stop on lap 44, fitted a set of super-softs and disappeared over the horizon. He was bothered only by a minor braking vibration, towards the race’s conclusion, but you’d never have guessed. Horner rated this as one of Vettel’s finest drives and it was hard to disagree. Yes, he had a tyre advantage during the event’s final phase – but he’d put himself in a position to earn it.
Alonso took an unlikely second, profiting from Ferrari’s earlier tactical decision. “We pitted under the safety car when we saw Rosberg wasn’t stopping,” the Spaniard said. “We had to try something different, because otherwise we weren’t fast enough to beat them.”
The team told him to watch his tyres as he rejoined, because he’d be staying out for the duration, and it took the late second-stoppers so long to work through traffic that he’d eventually salvage second. The main threat would have been Grosjean, whose Lotus is famously light on its feet, but he dropped out soon after the restart when his engine lost air pressure.
Button was shuffled up to third by the later stops, with Räikkönen and Sergio Pérez on his tail, but his enduring defence finally wilted (in tandem with his Pirellis) and the Finn swept into third around the outside of Turn 14 on lap 54. Webber and the Mercedes drivers gradually worked their way through the dense, tiptoeing traffic and the Australian almost had Räikkönen in his sights, but his engine then lost water pressure. He tried short-shifting, but became slower and slower until his engine blew on the final lap and he ground to a fiery halt. Rosberg thus took fourth from Hamilton, while Massa made a third stop – Ferrari had put him on super-softs on lap 25 – and fresh rubber enabled him, too, to slice up to sixth, from Button, Pérez, Hülkenberg and Sutil, whose team-mate di Resta crashed out on lap 55, while running 10th.
“It wasn’t easy to get everything right all weekend,” Vettel said, “but it’s the commitment from everybody at Red Bull that ultimately enabled us to control the race. It’s a privilege to be part of that.”
He leads the championship by 60 points and Alonso admitted that only bad fortune will separate his rival from a fourth straight world title. “We’ll need luck at each of the last six races,” he said. “This is a sport and the best team wins. At the moment that’s not us.”
He gave Webber a lift back to the pits afterwards and both were reprimanded, the Australian for walking onto the track without permission and Alonso for stopping and causing both Mercedes drivers to take avoiding action. It was Webber’s third reprimand of the campaign – and that translates as a 10-grid place penalty for Korea.
Earlier, the GP2 title contest distilled to what looks like a two-way fight between Swiss racer Fabio Leimer and Brit Sam Bird, although Felipe Nasr and Stefano Coletti retain mathematical chances ahead of the Abu Dhabi showdown. Bird led all the way to win the Singapore sprint and trails Leimer by only seven points.
GP2 has a reputation for comedic mishaps and the latest was saved for the cooling-off lap. The top three were supposed to drive around to the podium ceremony, while other drivers returned to the paddock by turning left through an aperture along Raffles Boulevard. Lapped American Alex Rossi did the latter – and Leimer, who finished third, was caught unawares. He T-boned his rival and, like Webber, had to cadge a lift to the pits. With hindsight, he was wise to plump for the safety car…