This season, like last, has been one of dominance, but this weekend the Singapore Grand Prix felt like a throwback to Sebastian Vettel‘s seemingly unrelenting years at the top – not like the last 12 months where we’ve expected Lewis Hamilton to reign supreme.
FP1 on Friday seemed to be a normal affair and there were no obvious signs of a Mercedes team in distress, but by Saturday it was a full SOS that was being sent out. Ferrari and Red Bull looked quick, but so often we’ve seen Hamilton pull out a great lap when least expected. This time his fastest lap was only good enough for fifth.
It seems like Mercedes has left the dark skies and bright lights of Singapore scratching its head about how its performance could drop off in such a spectacular fashion. “A second-and-a-half, or 1.2 exactly,” as Hamilton said after his DNF in the race, was a huge amount to lose in one weekend. In fact both drivers were so keen to talk about how bizarre it was, it was almost as if they were alluding to something that they couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about.
Let’s take nothing away from Vettel, though. He has a great record around Marina Bay and has now won four times in the last five years. His second run in qualifying, which just cemented his pole, was millimetre-perfect and toed the line between brilliance and disaster as he flirted with the wall. It was his first pole since the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2013, Ferrari’s first pole in the dry since Fernando Alonso five years ago and, more importantly for the Scuderia, it got the first non-Mercedes-engined pole in the new hybrid era.
Sunday only got better. A clean getaway, two swift restarts and two hours of complete control allowed Vettel get his third win of the year. He says that his championship is in the hands of Mercedes and if it gets things back on course and can sort out engine reliability, then it will simply be too strong for him to mount a late challenge.
Max Verstappen had a touch of Vettel about him this weekend and although he ignored Toro Rosso team orders and refused to move over for team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr, I don’t expect his Red Bull bosses to give him too hard a time. While Toro Rosso might be a little aggrieved that the 18-year-old rookie decided to take things into his own hands, Helmut Marko will be impressed that Verstappen showed his mettle, especially after working his way back through the pack with some great overtaking.
His disregard of the order to give the place to his team-mate was reminiscent of Vettel last year telling Red Bull that if Daniel Ricciardo wanted to overtake him, then he should drive quicker… and that’s before we get into his incidents with Mark Webber.
Sainz was incredibly eloquent, yet frustrated as told me that he has let Verstappen through “four times this year” and that he only wanted a chance to have a go at Sergio Pérez for “just one lap, and if not then I would have given Max his place back”.
It’s something that we’ve seen Red Bull do before, most recently at the Monaco Grand Prix this year. The difference here is the Toro Rosso factor; every point, every pass, qualifying position and DNF matters more. We’ve seen how disposable the least quick driver has been in the past, even when they’ve run their team-mate close. One gets promoted and the other ends up in Formula E…
Sainz is desperate to prove what he can do as the focus and praise gets piled on his team-mate, but the Spanish rookie has done more than enough to show that he should be in Formula 1 for a long time. These guys are the stars of the future and seventh, eighth or ninth at the Singapore Grand Prix won’t change that.
Next up is Japan, where we get to one of the best tracks on the calendar – Suzuka. It’s Vettel’s favourite circuit, but Mercedes will have a few days to get its mojo back. It’d be foolish to doubt that it can.