'Wild scenes' in the F1 stewards' room: inside view from a penalty controversy
It could have been the corner that changed the course of the title race. The door closed on Lewis Hamilton, but he went on to win the grand prix after…
Difficult to call which scene contained the greater tension: Nico Rosberg sitting on dummy grid not knowing if he was going to be able to start the race from the front row or the pitlane after frantic attempts at curing a glitch in his gearbox/clutch electronics. Or many laps later into the Singapore night Lewis Hamilton, trying to pull out a pit stop’s worth of gap on a safety car-compressed bunch of rivals who, unlike him, didn’t need to stop again to get the regulation second tyre compound on. The resolution of each of these two dramas – Rosberg retiring, Hamilton winning – changed the lead of the world championship in Hamilton’s favour.
“It looks like a loom in the steering column failed and that was the root of Nico’s problems,” explained Toto Wolff of the latest Mercedes reliability woe. The problem became apparent upon start-up in the garage. The steering wheel was replaced with another, but still it was refusing to engage a gear from standstill.
They got him going from the garage, dropping it off the jack already in gear. Out he chugged but with no radio or DRS and almost no electrical boost. They continued to frantically work on it on the grid beneath the floodlights, the whole world watching their sweaty toil in the equatorial heat. This time the complete steering assembly was changed, but the problem remained locked within the wiring.
Nico sat there flicking the paddles, turning the wheel, going nowhere as his title rival headed the field off on the formation lap. Rosberg’s car was pushed into the pitlane from where he would be drop-started again, to join in at the back. With not much more than the internal combustion part of his power unit, he could make no progress, and the gears would change up two at a time, requiring him to go two up and one back.
He drove it like this for 14 laps before it became time to pit to replace his worn super-softs for fresh softs. This time even the drop-start didn’t work. Accepting defeat, he climbed out and prepared to spend the evening as an informed spectator. His team-mate was leading the race by 8.8s. Maximum championship damage. “We apologised for letting him down,” said Wolff, “and he handled the whole situation in a very professional way. We have a missile of a car this year but these reliability issues keep tripping us up.”
Both Hamilton and Ferrari had cause to curse Sauber’s Adrian Sutil on the 30th lap as he pincered Sergio Pérez between him and the turn-eight wall, breaking the Force India’s front wing which proceeded to dismantle itself down the following few hundred metres. With lumps and shards of broken carbon fibre littering St Andrew’s Road from the Recreation Club all the way up to The Cricket Club, the safety car was scrambled.
There were still 31 laps to go and the prime tyres that had been fitted to the third- and fourth-placed Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo meant they might just be able to complete the distance without another stop. Hamilton and the second-placed Ferrari of Fernando Alonso, having been fitted with their third sets of options, were obliged to have to stop again – as the regulations demand both specs of tyre be used.
Ferrari brought Alonso in, Mercedes left Hamilton out. But either way, both were disadvantaged to Red Bull. That increasingly became the case the longer the safety car stayed out. Seven laps seemed an awfully long time to sweep some carbon debris – and two-stopping became increasingly feasible. As Hamilton sprinted off at the restart, he needed to build the 27 seconds needed for a pit stop if he was to rejoin ahead of Vettel. He set about trying to do exactly that, thrashing the Mercedes around between the walls on tyres he would be ditching soon while the Red Bulls were constrained to a pace necessary to get their rubber to the end. Could that gap be built before Hamilton’s tyres cried enough?
That wasn’t the sort of race that had looked in store after qualifying, where the two main points to emerge were the much-reduced Mercedes advantage and the exceptionally closely matched pace of the Mercedes drivers, Hamilton shading Rosberg by 0.007s to take his 37th career pole.
It was an all-Mercedes front row, but not quite as we’ve come to know it; Red Bull and Ferrari were only a couple of tenths adrift in the order of Ricciardo, Vettel and Alonso. Fernando might have even have sneaked pole had he not locked up in the middle of his final lap, an error that cost more than 0.2s.
There were several contributory factors for this anomalous situation. The Mercedes W05 does not like the super-soft tyre, the Ferrari F14T loves it. The Red Bull RB10 is supreme in the sort of short, sharp quick direction changes that make up much of this street track and there are no great long straights to punish its lack of Mercedes engine. The Williams FW36 – Merc’s recent closest rival – is a little light on rear downforce and without those long straights to reward its big grunt and low drag. Felipe Massa extracted a great lap from the car just to put it sixth fastest, within 0.319s of Hamilton’s pole.
That said, Hamilton’s lap was not the ultimate. It included a lock-up into turn one right at the start that cost 0.15s. “I thought I’d blown pole at that point,” he said. “But the lap just kept getting better and better.” He made up the deficit plus that extra 0.007s. “Dammit!” exclaimed Rosberg on being told the outcome.
The extra grip of a new set of super-soft Pirellis is used more powerfully by the back of the W05 than the front and the car’s usual sweet balance is exchanged for stubborn understeer. It suffered similarly in qualifying at Monaco, Montreal and Austria – the other three tracks where the super-soft was used this year. The soft prime tyre was around 2.5s slower for everyone and therefore not a viable alternative.
Put the super-soft on the Ferrari and suddenly it has a positive front end and its traction shortfall is smothered – at least for a couple of laps. On a track where its power shortfall isn’t so important and where Alonso is absolutely in his element, it was enough to give Mercedes a fright. Furthermore, the more positive front end allowed Kimi Räikkönen to be much more comfortable in it than usual. An electrical glitch prevented him completing a second Q3 run though, leaving him seventh, ahead of the Williams of Valtteri Bottas who made an error on his final run but who was generally shaded around here by Massa, something of a Singapore specialist.
Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren and Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso completed the top-10. Jean-Eric Vergne, 12th fastest behind Jenson Button’s McLaren, was actually the faster Toro Rosso driver nearly weekend but made a crucial error at the vital moment in Q2 and failed to graduate to the run-off.
The grid space where Rosberg’s car wasn’t had allowed Vettel an uncluttered view straight ahead but as the lights went out Hamilton was up and gone and Seb’s attention was on hugging the inside line and refusing to be intimidated by Ricciardo’s sister Red Bull trying to squeeze him.
Daniel’s attempts at getting ahead had not been helped by his engine briefly losing power, the first manifestation of a problem that would develop later. As the Red Bulls squabbled, Alonso tried to run around their outside into the first turn but arrived there too fast, locked his inside left and carried straight on across the run-off area. He cut back on track second only to Hamilton but knowing he’d need to give Vettel the place back – which he did as they raced up Raffles Avenue up to turn seven, taking care to chop across Ricciardo just in case Daniel had any ideas about following Seb through.
1. L Hamilton Merc. 2h 00m 04.795s
2. S Vettel Red Bull 13.534s
3. D Ricciardo Red Bull 14.273s
4. F Alonso Ferrari 15.389s
5. F Massa Williams 42.161s
6. J-E Vergne Toro Rosso 56.801s
7. S Pérez Force India 59.038s
8. K Räikkönen Ferrari 1m00.641s
9. N Hulkenberg Force India 1m01.661s
10. K Magnussen McLaren 1m02.230s
11. V Bottas Williams 1m05.065s
12. P Maldonado Lotus 1m06.915s
13. R Grosjean Lotus 1m08.029s
14. D Kvyat Toro Rosso 1m12.008s
15. M Ericsson Caterham 1m34.188s
16. J Bianchi Marussia 1m34.543s
17. M Chilton Marussia 1 Lap
– J Button McLaren DNF
– A Sutil Sauber DNF
– E Gutiérrez Sauber DNF
– N Rosberg Mercedes DNF
– K Kobayashi Caterham DNS
This all just played further into Hamilton’s hands and the Merc was pulling out big chunks every corner. Past the neon-lit buildings around Marina Bay Hamilton hustled the silver car, floodlighting glinting in its bodywork as it ducked out of the shadows of the East Coast Parkway flyover, Sunday evening traffic passing by hundreds of feet above.
The venue looked as glamorous as ever in its nighttime glitz and Hamilton passed the start/finish line for the first time 1.6s ahead of a pack headed by Vettel from Alonso, Ricciardo, Räikkönen, Massa, Button, Bottas and Magnussen, the latter having gained a place at turn five but then lost two by sliding wide at turn seven whilst trying to fend off Button.
Vettel held the gap constant for the first four laps and edged away from Ricciardo and Alonso. Hamilton then trimmed a half-second from his pace and left the Red Bull well behind – even whilst using less fuel. At the end of the seventh lap he’d burned off 13.92kg of his allocated 100kg, 1.1kg less than Vettel. By the 10th lap Hamilton had the gap out to over 5s. Although the Mercedes W05 had struggled for balance over a single lap, it was proving still much the quickest car over a sequence of them – just as had been suggested by the long runs of Friday evening.
Already the first pit stops in what was widely expected to be a three-stop race were underway further down the field. Everyone had started on the much faster super-soft tyre but the heat degradation around this place with its repeated low gear acceleration zones is high – as much as 0.25s per lap. Even the slower soft was expected to lose 0.15s-worth of grip each lap.
Massa had got himself onto the tail of Räikkönen’s fifth-place Ferrari. Williams understood that this place favours the brave and that aggressively chasing the undercut to gain track position was its best chance. It brought Felipe in at the end of lap 10, Ferrari responded with Räikkönen next lap to no avail – Massa was now ahead. The Ferrari was faster over a lap but the Williams was by far the fastest thing at the end of the straights and was therefore nearly impossible to pass.
Bottas was in on 11, Vettel, Alonso and Ricciardo on 12 (Red Bull performing a slick double shuffle stop, taking advantage of the nine seconds Vettel had pulled out over Ricciardo). Hamilton stayed out until the 13th lap and once the long-running Button had pitted, the lead Mercedes began its second stint 8.8s ahead of Vettel – just as Rosberg was climbing out and going to greet his wife in the garage.
As Hamilton’s car became an ever-more distant spec to Vettel, so Alonso began looming larger in his mirrors. By lap 24 he was in undercut range of the Red Bull and Ferrari brought him in, fitted him with another new set of super-softs in just 2.4s and sent him on his way. Red Bull knew it had just lost Vettel’s second position. “There was no point in doing the same as them at this point,” explained Christian Horner. “So we went to the prime tyre to give ourselves the opportunity of re-passing them later when we made our third stops when we’d get onto option and they’d have to use the prime.”
Williams again went aggressive, getting both Massa and Bottas in early – before they could be undercut by Räikkönen or Button respectively. Both were fitted with the prime tyre in a strategically shrewd move.
1. Lewis Hamilton 241
2. Nico Rosberg 238
3. Daniel Ricciardo 181
4. Fernando Alonso 133
5. Sebastian Vettel 124
6. Valtteri Bottas 122
7. Jenson Button 72
8. Nico Hulkenberg 72
9. Felipe Massa 65
10. Sergio Pérez 45
11. Kimi Räikkönen 45
12. Kevin Magnussen 39
13. Jean-Eric Vergne 19
14. Romain Grosjean 8
15. Daniil Kvyat 8
16. Jules Bianchi 2
17. Adrian Sutil 0
18. Marcus Ericsson 0
19. Pastor Maldonado 0
20. Esteban Gutiérrez 0
21. Max Chilton 0
22. Kamui Kobayashi 0
Hamilton made his second stop on the 26th lap. The team took advantage of the handy cushion he’d built up, keeping him stationary for an extra couple of seconds while they removed the rubber debris build-up that was blocking the slot gaps in the front wing. He left on a new set of super-softs and at the end of the lap led Alonso by four seconds, the reduction in his lead coming from Alonso having got on the much fresher rubber two laps earlier (0.25s/lap degradation x 11-lap difference in tyre use = Alonso’s tyres being 0.76s/lap faster for the two laps between his stop and Hamilton’s = 1.5s. Plus the extra 2.1s Hamilton was stationary = 3.6s).
Hamilton had no need to be flat-out at this point but regardless of all that and the above mitigation, Alonso was hugely over-delivering. But that was as close as he got. Hamilton then simply began expressing his car’s performance to the tune of 0.5s per lap. That’s how it was all poised before Sutil’s over-aggressive defence on Pérez. Had the Sauber and Force India not clashed Lewis and Fernando were each going to run for another 15-18 laps, Hamilton would probably have levelled off once he’d got, say, a 10-second margin over the Ferrari which would then have come under attack in the final stint from the faster-tyred Red Bull of Vettel – and perhaps that of Ricciardo too (for Daniel was on the same tyre strategy as his team-mate).
Some way distant from the Red Bulls was Massa, still holding the faster Räikkönen at bay, then Bottas, Button and Vergne. The latter was enjoying a very strong race. He’d demanded the team move Kvyat aside as he was making no impact upon Magnussen. After Daniil complied Jean-Éric undercut his way ahead of the McLaren but subsequently incurred a five-second penalty for getting all four wheels off the track at turn seven when defending his place.
Both Magnussen and Kvyat were suffering. Something – the assumption was it was a malfunctioning battery – was making the McLaren’s cockpit exceptionally hot. Kevin soldiered on but couldn’t even use his drinks bottle for the liquid was at close to boiling point. His lower back was becoming uncomfortably hot. Kvyat’s drinks bottle wasn’t functioning – bad news around the calendar’s physically toughest race for a young driver who, like Magnussen, hovers at the bare minimum of body mass to keep weight down. They at least got a break from their punishment when the safety car came out on lap 30 while the Pérez debris was cleared.
Ferrari responded to the safety car by bringing in both Alonso and Räikkönen – just six laps after their second stops. The logic was to get them onto the prime tyre so they could run to the end – a very ambitious plan but the timing of the safety car meant they had nothing to lose.
Why didn’t Ferrari do with Alonso what Mercedes did with Hamilton – ie leave him out, have him push flat-out on the restart to pull out a gap over the tyre-conservers, then make a late stop? “Because we didn’t have the race pace to be able to do that,” explained Alonso. “It worked for Lewis because of his pace. If we’d tried it we would not have built a big enough gap to clear the traffic before we had to stop and we’d have finished seventh or eighth.”
Conversely, a quick stop while the pack was at safety car speed dropped Alonso only behind both Red Bulls, while Räikkönen lost places to Bottas and Button. Hamilton and Ferrari cursed the timing of it all. Lewis because his margin had been wiped and he still needed to use the prime while he had a line of seven prime-tyred cars behind him that had already complied with that requirement. But just because they were on the harder tyre didn’t mean they could get it to do another 31 laps plus whatever they’d already done. Did it?
That was surely a very big ask for a tyre reckoned pre-race to be good for maybe 22-24 laps. “We were still thinking we’d be three-stopping,” said Horner. “But then the safety car stayed out for much longer than we were expecting. We began to think it might be possible.”
At Williams they were thinking much the same. “The long safety car period moved it to two-stop for two reasons,” explained Rob Smedley. “One because the problem with the tyres is the building heat degredation which just aggregates and at safety car speeds you’re not getting that. Secondly it reduced the race distance by a lap by making it time-out at two hours.” The race distance was 61 laps – or two hours. Whichever came first. Seven laps at safety car speeds ensured a 60-lap race.
So Hamilton’s challenge was defined: could he open out the 27 seconds needed for a stop over the chasing Red Bulls and Alonso before his super-soft tyres – which would be 11 laps old by the time the race restarted, albeit only four of those at racing speeds – gave out? He was up for trying. His car headed those of Vettel, Ricciardo, Alonso, Massa, Bottas, Button, Räikkönen and the rest.
At Red Bull Vettel was less enamoured at the idea of staying out until the end, feeling sure he could not get the tyres to last that distance. “I don’t think that’s a good plan,” he told engineer ‘Rocky’. “You’d need to pass too many cars if you came in,” he was advised. So Seb – like all those behind – prepared for some gentle driving.
“I’d been pushing hard after my stop,” said Massa, who’d done eight laps on his primes before the safety car, “and so I’d already used up quite a lot of my tyres. Now I had to completely change my driving style – and drive like my granny. She’s very smooth!”
The safety car came in at the end of lap 37, Hamilton sprinted away and the seven prime-tyred guys behind him drove like Massa’s granny. Lewis’ first flying lap was a 1m 51.6s, Vettel’s a 1m 54.0s! The worn harder tyres took longer to reach working temperature than the super-softs but still this was impressive, Lewis in absolute full-attack qualifying lap mode.
After a couple of laps 2.5s faster than Vettel, Hamilton’s margin increased more slowly – but still it built. By lap 50 he had 24s in hand over Seb and was anxious to stop. “Let’s just try to get it out to 27s in the next three laps,” he was advised. “I dunno, these tyres are going man,” came the response. Lap 51 added another 1.3s to his margin but he was now over one second slower than he’d been. “I’m worried these tyres may explode or something,” he said, an almost Mansell-esque dramatic effect sentence. It was clear that magic margin wasn’t going to be reached and he was going to have to surrender the lead to Vettel – though everyone else was now cleared.
1. Mercedes 479
2. Red Bull/Renault 305
3. Williams/Mercedes 187
4. Ferrari 178
5. Force India/Mercedes 117
6. McLaren/Mercedes 111
7. Toro Rosso/Renault 27
8. Lotus/Renault 8
9. Marussia/Ferrari 2
10. Sauber/Ferrari 0
11. Caterham/Renault 0
He pitted with nine laps to go, the stop was perfect, he rejoined a few lengths behind the Red Bull and immediately began gaining fast on his fresh rubber. Vettel on his 27-lap old tyres hung on as the leader for another lap. Hamilton crossed the DRS detection point at turn three less than one second behind, enabling him to stall his wing as they accelerated out of turn five and headed up Raffles Avenue. Vettel prepared to surrender to the inevitable. “I was preparing to make room for him going into turn seven,” smiled Seb. “But he didn’t want to wait.” As he was preparing to move right to leave Hamilton room on the inside for seven, Vettel was surprised to find the Merc screeching past on the right through the preceding 190mph kink of six. It was a suitably dramatic way for Hamilton to retake the lead – Mansell would’ve been proud.
The remainder of Vettel’s evening was fairly routine as he watched the Merc quickly pull away whilst behind him Ricciardo continued to hold off Alonso despite an intermittent loss of power. He would use his team-mate’s car to get DRS and thereby neutralise Alonso’s DRS. The stalemate was further ensured by their having to tyre conserve. Massa was doing the same some way distant behind them.
But behind that, things were about to get a little lairy as Bottas struggled in a Williams with not only very tired rubber but also a steering problem. “It just suddenly developed behind the safety car,” he explained. “It became very heavy and it didn’t straighten out, just stayed wherever I put it and I had no feedback from it. It made it very difficult to control the little snaps you get and hard to look after the tyres.”
Australia – NR: 1st, LH: DNF (engine)
Malaysia – NR: 2nd, LH: 1st
Bahrain – NR: 2nd, LH: 1st
China – NR: 2nd, LH: 1st
Spain: NR: 2nd, LH: 1st
Monaco – NR: 1st, LH: 2nd
Canada – NR: 2nd, LH: DNF (Brakes)
Austria – NR: 1st, LH: 2nd
Great Britain – NR: DNF (gearbox), LH: 1st
Germany – NR: 1st, LH: 3rd
Hungary – NR: 4th, LH: 3rd
Belgium – NR: 2nd, LH: DNF (accident damage after collision with NR)
Italy – NR: 2nd, LH: 1st
Singapore – NR: DNF (wiring loom), LH: 1st
Rosberg: four wins, seven seconds, two DNFs
Hamilton: seven wins, two seconds, two thirds, three DNFs
But it remained formidably fast down the straights, as Button was discovering to his frustration. But that’s not as frustrated as he became when the McLaren suffered total electrical shutdown on lap 52. This put Räikkönen on Bottas’ tail and soon the Williams’ became so slow that others began to latch onto his train. First to arrive on Kimi’s tail was the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg. Then the recovering Vergne on fresh primes, then Pérez who’d thrown the dice and made a fourth stop for a set of super-softs. Yet still Bottas hung on, put himself in all the right places.
Two laps from the end Vergne got by Hulkenberg and going into the penultimate lap launched the Toro Rosso down the inside of Räikkönen into turn one, taking the place with wheel-locking precision. A few corners later he penetrated Bottas’ defences for sixth. But JEV was carrying another five-second penalty – again for having got all four wheels off the track in an earlier dice, and this would be added to his race time. He needed therefore to pull away from the dicing pack by more than five seconds if he was to retain that sixth place.
With the help of Bottas, he was able to do this. Pérez, reliably combative, used his traction advantage to out-accelerate team-mate Hulkenberg between the tight turns of 17-18 and set off after Räikkönen. As he was lining up the Ferrari down St Andrews Road, Hamilton was taking the victory flag and the fireworks were erupting into the night sky. He was the whole pit straight clear of the Red Bulls and Alonso.
Pérez passed Räikkönen into turn 10 and a few corners later was handed seventh place as Bottas finally ran out of rubber altogether, Valtteri helpless to prevent Räikkönen, Hulkenberg and Magnussen all barging past in the last few hundred metres, bundling him out of the points. But his tenacity had probably helped Massa secure his fifth place. With the pack kept off his back in this way, he was able to cruise that rubber home.
Rosberg had classily hung around to watch the race from the pit lane. “It would have been a hardcore race if Nico was in it with me,” said Lewis. His seventh win of the year puts him back in the championship lead for the first time since Barcelona – by a scant three points.
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