I was there when... 2008 Singapore GP


It wasn’t a violent temper tantrum, more a petulant stamp. Fernando Alonso wasn’t expecting to win Formula 1’s inaugural night race, around the streets of Marina Bay, Singapore, but he’d sensed an opportunity to put a frustrating few months behind him. After a brief, tempestuous fling with McLaren, he’d returned to his first true love – Renault – and been handed a dud to race against the latest title contender from Woking. He felt, though, that the R28 might be reasonably effective at this bumpy addition to the F1 schedule. His practice form underlined as much, but then a fuel feed problem sapped his car of life during qualifying’s second phase. “You can’t overtake at this track,” Alonso said, “and if you start 15th your weekend is already over.”

Unless, of course…

Felipe Massa took pole for Ferrari, more than six tenths clear of the rest. A particularly impressive lap, that, given that he was running a similar fuel load to his closest rivals. The Brazilian seemed to be cruising to victory, too, until the race’s complexion changed when Nelson Piquet spun and thumped the wall at the slow, second-gear Turn 17. He’d spun at the same spot during the final formation lap, but that was assumed to be ineptitude rather than mischief. The same applied, mind, when he went off for a second time.

Popular perception suggests Massa lost the 2008 title in Brazil, when a last-minute deluge and contrasting tyre choices enabled Lewis Hamilton to pass Timo Glock at the final corner and steal the main prize by a point. In a seasonal context, though, Hungary and Singapore were more dramatically significant. Massa dominated in Budapest until his engine failed in the final stages. And here in Singapore, Piquet prompted a safety car that jumbled strategies and triggered a flurry of stops. Ferrari usually relied on automated pit signalling, but not this time. “It is better to have a manual system when there are lots of cars coming in to the pits,” said team principal Stefano Domenicali, “but unfortunately a mistake was made.”

Massa was sent away with fuel hose and parts of the rig still attached to his car. He continued to the far end of the pits, spraying Shell as he went, and had to wait for the team to arrive on foot and unravel the mess. He was eventually able to rejoin at the tail of the field, albeit with a drive-through penalty for the unsafe manner of his original release.

Alonso had pitted on lap 12 – ridiculously early, it seemed – and at that stage was firmly last, almost 85 seconds behind Massa. The ensuing pandemonium did him no harm, however, and when the race resumed Nico Rosberg led from Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella (both on one-stoppers), Robert Kubica, Alonso and Mark Webber. Rosberg and Kubica had drive-throughs coming, though, because they’d been obliged to stop for fuel (or else run dry) before the pits had officially opened for business (under the rules of the day, drivers were not permitted to dive straight in when the safety car was dispatched but had to await clearance from race control).

With all bar Trulli trapped behind Fisichella’s lumbering Force India (the Italian didn’t stop until lap 29), Rosberg was able to open a significant lead and dropped only to third after serving his penalty. Trulli then led until lap 33, when he refuelled and handed the advantage to Alonso.

The Spaniard still wasn’t quite in a winning position. Webber was fuelled to run longer and might have vaulted the Spaniard during the stops, but his Red Bull then simultaneously selected fifth and seventh gears – a consequence, the team felt, of electronic interference from a nearby subway train – and the Australian’s challenge was over.

Potential rivals such as Hamilton had been gummed in traffic after the first stops and, with a clear road ahead, Alonso was able to build enough of an advantage to maintain his lead after making his second and final stop on lap 41. Game over. It was Alonso’s first victory since Monza 2007 and Renault’s since Japan 2006.

“I honestly thought I had no chance after what happened in qualifying,” he said, “but it shows how unpredictable F1 can be. I was unlucky on Saturday but very, very lucky today.” His only real drama had occurred two laps in, when he discovered that his drinks bottle didn’t work at one of the toughest, most oppressive venues on the calendar. A swig of champagne provided suitable compensation.

Hamilton eventually found a way past David Coulthard’s Red Bull to move up to third, but was unable to shift Rosberg (Trulli had long since disappeared with hydraulic problems). “I was up to a second quicker than Nico when I was catching him,” he said, “but when I got there it was just like being behind DC.”

“Oi,” countered Rosberg, “don’t make me sound that slow…”

The mood was slightly less frivolous a year later, when Piquet confessed that he’d crashed deliberately in an effort to help the team. The Brazilian had scored a fortuitous second place in Germany following a genuine safety car intervention – and in Singapore he’d tried to engineer something similar. It proved to be one of the most successful things he accomplished during his brief F1 career… but he spilled the beans shortly after the team fired him during the summer of 2009.

Piquet received no sanction, ditto Alonso (who denied knowing anything about the plot), but an FIA hearing suspended Renault team principal Flavio Briatore and engineering director Pat Symonds from the sport for five years, although a French tribunal eventually reversed that decision.

Imaginative exploitation of the rules was once as much a part of the sport as braking points or apices, but times had changed.

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