MPH: How Hamilton's Russian GP weekend went wrong
The 91st Schumacher-equalling victory will just have to wait, as Lewis Hamilton’s Russian weekend cascaded out of his control through an unfortunate series of events, albeit triggered by his own…
Sebastian Vettel was in very familiar territory, sitting there on pole position under the Singapore floodlights, everything under control, a set of fresh option tyres saved from yesterday, a stronger engine to keep him ahead of his front row rival at the start and in the crucial parts of the lap.
For him, how to win a grand prix is almost a pre-programmed formula: run away from them, run them ragged and then control your gap, track position king, the reward for setting pole. The only difference was he was dressed in red, not blue. His two previous Ferrari victories were opportunistic things, not to the Red Bull formula of his glory days. But this one was like old times.
He’d got the dominant pole – thanks to a combination of his own virtuosity around this place, the potency of Ferrari’s recent developments and the mysterious tyre-related loss of form of Mercedes – and now all he had to do was utilise all those advantages ruthlessly, flawlessly, faultlessly. The way he always used to – before the hybrid formula and the whirlwind Perth kid on the other side of the garage. And that’s how it played out. A scorching early lead – three seconds at the end of the first lap, almost a pit straight clear by the fourth – and control it from there.
Briefly, Daniel Ricciardo, that pesky Perth whirlwind in the Red Bull that’s so suited to this track, started to come back at him, made him question whether he’d overdone it in pushing so hard so early. But he was rescued from the possible consequences of that by an opportunely-timed safety car that led everyone to pit at the same time, a little too early to comfortably accommodate the planned two-stop, but not so early that it necessarily forced a slower three-stop upon him. If he could just take it easy early in the stint this time – necessarily the opposite approach to that first stint – he could get back upon a two-stop, again using the advantage track position buys you.
Ricciardo was forced to adopt the same strategy and so a mid-race stalemate broke out, one that fooled the following Lewis Hamilton into believing he might be in contention after all. Then, with the necessary number of laps behind him, his second set of options still in good condition, it was time for Vettel to let rip once more, to build and control that gap. Even a mid-race drunk on the Anderson Bridge that triggered a second safety car didn’t really impinge too much upon his evening. It came at a time that took the decision of when to make the second stop out of everyone’s hands. So was Vettel victory number 42 – surpassing the total of Ayrton Senna – secured.
Want to compare other F1 drivers? Click here.
Vettel and Ricciardo out-paced a troubled Kimi Räikkönen, the second Ferrari able to hang onto the Red Bull early in each safety car restart stint but subsequently running out of tyre grip and falling well behind. Mercedes tried an alternative tyre strategy – Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fitting primes at the first stops – but simply didn’t have the pace to make it work. Hamilton retired with a leaking turbo clamp, Rosberg took a very distant fourth.
Since its Monza engine upgrade returned Mercedes-matching power to the Ferrari motor, combining it with the steady improvement in the SF-15T’s aero performance, the car has become a powerful weapon, especially so in qualifying. Combine that with some super-aggressive upgrades here, its great tyre usage, excellent cooling efficiency (demonstrated already in Sepang) and Sebastian Vettel’s virtuosity around Singapore and you have the combination that sat on pole by a resounding 0.6sec, the first non-Mercedes-powered pole of the turbo hybrid formula.
Each of his two Q3 laps would have secured the place and he had no need to complete the second of them but he was having a ball out there. The Ferrari was planted at the rear (albeit not quite Red Bull-quick into the turns), giving Seb massive confidence – a powerful quality around a track where the barriers lie in wait.
The floodlights glinted off the Ferrari’s bodywork as he surged through the fifth-sixth gear of the double apex sweep at the end of the lap; the front super-softs, having just completed the urgent sequence of right-angle turns of the preceding section, were just beginning to surrender. The car began to run slightly wide of the ideal line, but Vettel kept that right foot planted regardless, judging to perfection that he’d just shimmy over the kerb as he was crossing the timing beam.
“The car was fantastic to drive,” he trilled after taking his 46th career pole, “and it just got better through qualifying. It really was a near-perfect lap. It’s such a long, tricky lap around here, so easy to go in just a little too deep or push a little too much but it just seemed to come… it’s all about confidence around here. There is no room for error and if you feel confident and comfortable in the car you can attack and it can make a big difference. The better you feel, the closer you can get to the walls. I’ve always loved this track.”
Ferrari had made a big effort here too. Of all the cars, it was running by far the lowest at the front – as its regular contrails of titanium skid block sparks testified – potentially increasing the diffuser effect of the underside. James Allison confirmed there were quite a few details from the 2016 car on the bodywork and in the highly aerodynamically sensitive area ahead of the rear wheels the previous triple slats had been replaced by as many as 10.
It had rear grip to spare and it’s beginning to look like Ferrari is finally on a very productive aerodynamic path after years of scratching, trying to keep up. This was the first Ferrari dry weather pole since Fernando Alonso achieved the feat here – five years ago.
Kimi Räikkönen was never quite as happy or as confident in the car and in addition was troubled by small braking issues. Combined, it left him trailing his team mate by 0.8sec and back in third.
Though the Ferrari ran the lowest at the front, the Red Bull RB11 ran by far the highest at the rear, an outrageous degree of rake confirming that the team had found a way of keeping the airflow through the diffuser attached even at low speeds. At higher speeds the downforce compressed it down for a less front-endy balance, a combination that gave Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat lots of front end for the low speed quick direction changes but a more benign neutral balance for the higher speed sweeps.
The blown front axle introduced at Hungary but never raced reappeared here and this time stayed on the car – as if it had now been better calibrated with the rest of the car’s airflow. In addition, its horsepower deficit is not punished unduly around a track where full throttle is used only for around 36 per cent of the lap.
Ricciardo revelled in it all to go second quickest. He was fastest of all through the final sector – possibly because he’d had a less than stellar first sector that allowed the tyres still to be in good shape by the slippery and tight section at the end. That came about after Wiliams got Valtteri Bottas out just in front of him as they exited their garages. “Yeah, that could have ended up being a blessing in disguise,” grinned Daniel, “though at the time I wanted to push him into the pitlane!”
Kvyat, using a new slightly different under-nose turning vane on his car – with Ricciardo remaining on the standard one – was 0.3sec behind, almost all of the difference coming in the quick direction changes of the final sector, putting him fourth.
And only then came the Mercs! The car which has been on pole for every race this year – sometimes by a huge margin – was at Singapore one-and-a-half seconds off the pace! What’s more, a confused fifth-fastest Lewis Hamilton said the car felt fine. “The balance was good, I had no understeer. It was just grip from the tyres for some reason. The only way I could really explain it… it’s a bit like doing a good lap on the prime tyre and then you go and do exactly the same lap on an option tyre and it’s a second and a half faster. I do the lap, and think ‘that was a really good lap’, but it’s a second and a half slower than the guys up ahead.
“We’ve not lost any performance in the car, the drivers have not lost any performance, and so there’s only one way it could’ve come from and that’s obviously the rubber. But I have no way of knowing that is the case, so I’m very interested to find out. I actually challenge all you guys to go and find what the reasons might be, and I’m challenging my team to find out what it is… whether it’s tyre temperatures, blanket temperatures, ride heights…”
The fact that Mercedes was 1.5sec off the pace, pretty much the same as the gap between the two compounds here, aroused unlikely-sounding conspiracy theories about which tyres had been supplied. But a team would know this just from measuring the stiffness. Other conspiracy theorists were trying to link it with the Monza pressure controversy, though upping pressures by 0.3psi could not possibly account for 1.5sec.
Nico Rosberg was suffering similarly and was 0.15sec slower, one place behind, and echoed his team-mate’s observations. “I just had no grip in the corners, which was very strange. I tried a few things on set up but we haven’t really found out why we are slow this weekend.”
Toto Wolff had no answers, other than noting, “We haven’t been able to put the car in the sweet spot of the tyre. You need to have everything right; the ride-height, the camber, the toe, the pressures, the temperature of the bulk, the temperature of the surface. There is so much influencing it.”
The super-soft’s performance is particularly peaky with regard to its running temperature. Two degrees centigrade away from the peak will represent around 1 per cent loss of grip – worth around 0.4sec around here. It’s an extremely tyre grip-sensitive track, relatively insensitive to downforce and power. Getting the temperature of any tyre’s core (or bulk) matched with that of its surface is a crucial part of getting it to work – and a track with not many quick turns and lots of slow ones will tend to overheat the surface but under-work the core. The more the surface overheats, the less load that gets fed into the core, so creating yet greater divergence and disconnect between the two.
Why the Mercedes should suffer more than the others though, isn’t immediately obvious. Furthermore, the Mercs were if anything running with too low a surface temperature.
So was it that Mercedes had been previously gaining a performance advantage from overheating tyre blankets beyond the permitted 110deg C under the old measurement protocol, an advantage now denied them following the establishment of the new post-Monza protocol? But the Mercedes tyre blankets were measured at Monza – using what is now established as the new protocol – and found to comply.
A circuit with 23 corners, run with a temperature-peaky tyre, could conceivably see you a long way off the pace if you were only a small degree off the ideal tyre temperature. Is the ideal temperature perhaps higher than everyone but Ferrari has believed it to be? Certainly, Vettel’s tyres were working well throughout his lap and it may be significant that the Ferrari runs front brake nozzles that transfer more heat to the tyres than anyone else.
Bottas was just 0.15sec off Rosberg in his Williams-Mercedes which, like the sister car of Felipe Massa in ninth, was running a new front wing, a variation of the Mercedes-like family that was introduced at Hungary. Massa locked up badly into the newly re-profiled turn 11-12-13 sequence, leaving him with a time 0.3sec off his Q2 best, when he’d been slightly quicker than Bottas. This new section, using the left rather than the right hand side of Anderson Bridge, tightens that corner to make overtaking more feasible out of there and down the straight that follows. Team simulation suggested that it added 0.5sec to the theoretical lap time – putting Vettel’s lap, at 1.796sec faster than Hamilton’s 2014 pole time, into an even better light.
“It’s not a good track for us,” Felipe reflected. “In Q3 I had only one set of new tyres left and I just tried too hard and made a mistake. It was a terrible lap. But even if I’d got it all together we couldn’t have been any higher than fifth – and still a long way from Ferrari and Red Bull. When you look at how they get through sectors two and three you can see that they don’t lose their rear tyres like we do – and maybe Mercedes has a similar issue to us. The Ferrari just seems to keep its rear tyres in much better condition.”
Williams’ Rob Smedley gave further insight into the tyre conundrum that seemed to have formed this grid. “The tyre is constantly working here, but there is no high speed corner so you are importing a huge amount of energy into the tyres. You have quite a high value of sliding velocity in the way the tyre scrubs across the surface of the ground. It gives quite a different relationship here between the bulk temperature and the tyre surface – and it is really knowing the key to both of them and where to target both of them. But there is not a lot of recovery for the tyre around the lap, so once you put it into a certain situation then trying to recover from that is very difficult. On a normal track when you have imparted more sliding energy into it than normal you then have a kilometre of track to recover and it doesn’t really remember what it did a kilometre ago – whereas here you never stop using it.”
Splitting the Williams pair was Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso, an impressive outcome on his first visit to a very demanding track. He attacked the place with huge commitment right from the off, but kept it out of the walls throughout. His kart-like technique of generating oversteer well before the apex, then straightening out early was really working for him. His team-mate Carlos Sainz was on the verge of recording a Q2 lap that would likely have got him into Q3 but got just a little too greedy with the power exiting turn 19, flicking the left-rear into the wall and breaking a toe-link. It all left him back in 14th.
The Sainz incident rescued Bottas from being squeezed out of Q3 in the dying seconds, but Romain Grosjean would have got in regardless, which was a considerable achievement in a Lotus that was a visible handful. He was unable to repeat his Q2 lap in Q3 and lined up 10th. “Romain was able to do a terrific job to get into the top 10,” said Lotus’s Alan Permane. “He and his engineers worked hard since yesterday to find improvement to their car and have really made a difference with some subtle changes which have been sufficient to get more out of the super soft tyre this evening.”
Pastor Maldonado, in the wildly bucking and sliding sister car, looked permanently on the verge of an accident and though he kept it out of the walls he couldn’t get it out of Q1 and was faster only than the Manors.
Force India was a little disappointed not to have got at least one of its upgraded cars through to Q3, Nico Hülkenberg 11th quickest, three places ahead of Sergio Pérez who was caught out by the Sainz yellow flag. “The balance just wasn’t very good,” rued Hülkenberg. “We somehow lost it since yesterday.”
Fernando Alonso, in 12th, was also caught by the yellow flag but admitted that even without it he would not have got his McLaren through to Q3. The circuit’s layout allowed the car not to be running out of ers quite so much and consequently its straightline speeds were relatively respectable. It was newly fitted with a blown front axle. Jenson Button was never as relaxed with the car’s general waywardness over the bumps and was back in 15th around 0.5sec slower than Alonso.
Sauber was very disappointed not to have got either of its heavily upgraded short-nose cars out of Q1 – Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson back in 16th and 17th. At Manor Alexander Rossi made his debut, qualifying 0.5sec off team-mate Will Stevens. Both crashed on Friday and needed new gearboxes as a result. The five-place penalties were only theoretical given where they’d qualified.
Vettel’s opening lap was a thing of wonder. Ricciardo actually reacted more quickly to the lights but as the wheels stopped spinning and the second bite point of the clutch was reached, the Ferrari’s superior torque surged it comfortably ahead and Seb didn’t even need to get defensive into the first turn. The previous day he’d spoken of how the challenge of Singapore, its unyielding walls, the race’s long duration, the heat and humidity, tuned him up into a special pitch. “It’s an extreme challenge, the sort of race where you’re kind of excited. Not scared, but nervous, before you start. There’s a lot of things happening, it’s intense and you need to keep your focus up.”
It was as if he’d visualised the perfect fantasy opening lap, just as he’d done for the perfect qualifying lap the day before – and then simply done it for real. Massive momentum into the first turn, total confidence in the Ferrari’s rear end, a wide, clean approach while the others scrabbled with each other, a perfect arc through the tight left of three, through the kink of four and up to the crucial right of five, the Ferrari’s ers fully armed and now deployed hard up Raffles Boulevard, flat through the kink of six – and gone out of sight around Nicoll Avenue before the Red Bull had even arrived at the braking zone. By the end of the lap he was a stunning three seconds clear. How do you like them apples, Daniel?
Partly it was Vettel, almost certainly it was also the greater engine modes available in the Ferrari than the Renault. He was borrowing against the future, knowing he could reclaim the fuel and engine life by backing off later. But what about the extra strain on the tyres pushing so hard with with a heavily-fueled car? Had he judged that right? We’d get to find out soon enough.
1 S Vettel Ferrari 2hr 01min 22.118sec
2 D Ricciardo Red Bull +1.478sec
3 K Räikkönen Ferrari +17.154sec
4 N Rosberg Mercedes +24.720sec
5 V Bottas Williams +34.204sec
6 D Kvyat Red Bull +35.508sec
7 S Pérez Force India +50.836sec
8 M Verstappen Toro Rosso +51.450s
9 C Sainz Toro Rosso +52.860sec
10 F Nasr Sauber +90.045sec
11 M Ericsson Sauber +97.507sec
12 P Maldonado Lotus +97.718sec
DNF R Grosjean Lotus
13 A Rossi Marussia +2 laps
14 W Stevens Marussia +2 laps
DNF J Button McLaren
DNF F Alonso McLaren
DNF L Hamilton Mercedes
DNF F Massa Williams
DNF N Hülkenberg Force India
Räikkönen had prevailed over Kvyat for third into the first turn, with Hamilton and Rosberg getting around Bottas’s outside through turns two and three to go fifth and sixth, Valtteri’s mirrors filled by team-mate Massa, then the Force Indias with barely a fag paper between them, Pérez fishtailing wildly into turn eight avoiding the back of Hülkenberg, Alonso looking on from close quarters ahead of Sainz, Grosjean (delayed in avoiding the stalled Verstappen off the line), Nasr, Button, Ericsson, Maldonado, Stevens and Rossi. Before the lap was out Ericsson had passed Button and Rossi had found a way by team-mate Stevens – and would remain ahead for the rest of the evening.
After everyone had avoided Verstappen’s stalled Toro Rosso he was wheeled into the pitlane where the team brought it to life and sent him on his way a lap down. It was the unpromising beginning of a superb drive from the teenager. The fault, it seems, was with the car and not Verstappen. Rosberg had suffered similarly on his way to the grid, the Mercedes stalling at the end of the pitlane twice and needing to be rebooted by the Mercedes technicians. Thereafter it was fine.
Vettel’s lead increased to 4.3sec on the second lap and levelled out at just over 5sec from the fourth lap onwards, just enough to be comfortably clear of any undercut attempt, potentially allowing him to pit a lap later without losing the place.
Ricciardo, by contrast, was being circumspect. It was the obvious way to play it, given that he didn’t have the sheer grunt options to stay with the Ferrari in the early laps. He had a suspicion his old team-mate might just have played it a bit adventurous in those early laps with regard to the rubber – and he was under no real pressure from Räikkönen behind to hurry up.
The super-soft that everyone started the race on was around 1sec faster than the soft but was expected to last around seven laps longer. It degraded at around 0.2sec per lap as opposed to around 0.15sec for the soft thereby making the super-soft the faster tyre throughout its life. Its limited life range around here with the repeated low-gear accelerations and minimal recovery time meant that you’d need to stop at least twice, possibly three times.
It was calculated that two-stopping with a bit of tyre saving would be ultimately faster than three-stopping – the pitlane here is long and slippery. The only worry was whether the seemingly inevitable safety car (there’s been at least one in every grand prix held around here) would come out at an awkward time. This is indeed what happened – and in hindsight it cost Ricciardo a possible shot at stealing the victory from Vettel.
Daniel started coming back at the Ferrari from the seventh lap. “I started to lean on it, and it responded,” he reported. Vettel had already used up the best of his rubber in that spectacular early sprint. He had a good gap but Ricciardo was closing it down by two or three tenths each lap and the worry for Ferrari was whether Vettel could keep himself out of the Red Bull’s undercut range whilst still doing the number of laps required to remain on a two-stop. Realistically he needed to get to around lap 14 without Ricciardo getting any closer than 2sec.
By the 12th Daniel had the gap down to 3.6sec. It was going to be close, and Ricciardo would almost certainly have made him sweat, but on balance it looked as though Vettel’s gap would turn out to be just enough. You might say he’d cut things fine. Or you might consider his judgement to have been perfect. “Well, you’re driving a bit into the unknown at the beginning,” he explained. “I was trying to pull out the gap but was surprised to get to five seconds so quickly. Probably I pushed a bit hard in the beginning.”
It was already clear this was a two-horse race. Once Ricciardo stepped up the pace, Räikkönen was left floundering. “I’ve been struggling with the car since Saturday, with the grip at the rear. On the new tyres it’s OK, but after a few laps it was going away. I couldn’t do anything about the first two.”
He had enough end-of-straight speed to stay out of overtaking reach of Kvyat – and it seemed obvious that Red Bull would attempt to undercut Daniil past the Ferrari at the earliest opportunity. But then Kvyat’s pace began to drop away even from Räikkönen’s, forcing his attention to switch from ahead to behind where Hamilton was creeping ever-closer. Now there was pressure to pit early defensively to prevent an undercut attempt from the Mercedes. Daniil was brought in at the end of the 12th lap and fitted with another set of super-softs.
1 Lewis Hamilton 252
2 Nico Rosberg 211
3 Sebastian Vettel 203
4 Kimi Räikkönen 107
5 Valtteri Bottas 101
6 Felipe Massa 97
7 Daniel Ricciardo 73
8 Daniil Kvyat 66
9 Sergio Pérez 39
10 Romain Grosjean 38
11 Max Verstappen 30
12 Nico Hülkenberg 30
13 Felipe Nasr 17
14 Pastor Maldonado 12
15 Fernando Alonso 11
16 Carlos Sainz 11
17 Marcus Ericsson 9
18 Jenson Button 6
This turned out to be disastrous timing for Kvyat – as a safety car was about to be deployed to clear up the mess created by a collision between Massa and Hülkenberg. The backdrop to this had been Force India trying to undercut Hulk past Massa with an early stop – on lap 11. Forced to respond on the next lap there was a delay with Massa’s right-front and were it not for that he’d have been ahead of Hülkenberg as he exited the pits rather than level.
It was a crucial moment for Hulk, but uncharacteristically his racecraft deserted him in the heat of the moment as he tried to intimidate Massa to back out of it – but at a place where Felipe no longer had that option. Turning in across the Williams’ bows, Massa’s right-front flipped the Force India briefly airborne, into the barriers and out. Had Hulk simply given Massa racing room and rounded turn three side-by-side, he’d have ben ideally placed to take the inside line into five.
Initially a virtual safety car was deployed and with the gaps between everyone frozen on-track, Vettel, Ricciardo and Räikkönen all pitted and were fitted with fresh sets of super-softs. Hülkenberg’s misjudgement – for which he was later given a three-place grid penalty to be taken in Japan – was a little present to Vettel and Ferrari for it effectively brought Ricciardo’s challenge on them up short.
It also did Mercedes a favour in allowing both Hamilton and Rosberg to jump Kvyat, Daniil losing out by having to maintain VSC speed for the whole lap while the Mercs were constrained for only the part of the lap it took to get to the pits. Once there, they were fitted with the harder prime tyres. Rosberg was delayed slightly in having to back off to create the time for the double-shuffle Mercedes stop, but not enough to prevent him making up a place.
Although the safety car-enforced lap 13 was inconveniently early for the first of a two-stop strategy, it wasn’t disastrously so. And it was compensated for by the fact that racing didn’t resume until the end of lap 18. The VSC was replaced by an actual safety car on the 15th lap as the marshals needed fuller access to the track to clear the debris.
This wiped out the 6sec margin that Vettel had got over Ricciardo courtesy of a quicker stop – and Seb was not slow in questioning the necessity of a safety car. Massa was back into the pits on lap 14 as the collision with Hülkenberg had given him a slow puncture. Button’s stop lasted over half a minute as the wheelnut of the right-front got itself lodged within the rim.
The timing of the VSC hurt all those who’d already stopped – and this included Grosjean, Alonso, Sainz, Ericsson and Maldonado. Sainz then lost further places when his Toro Rosso put itself in neutral for several seconds – just as it had done in China. But if the safety car had been bad news for one Toro Rosso, it brought the race of the other one alive – for it allowed Verstappen to un-lap himself. The order behind the safety car after all the stops was: Vettel, Ricciardo, Räikkönen, Hamilton, Rosberg, Kvyat, Bottas, Pérez, Nasr, Grosjean, Alonso, Sainz, Maldonado, Massa, Ericsson, Button, Rossi, Stevens and Verstappen.
Vettel, Ricciardo and Räikkönen on their super-softs now needed to take it easy in order to get the stint length required to be able to remain on a two-stop. Hamilton, following them on his primes, was convinced Vettel was trying to back Ricciardo up into Räikkönen – but actually the leading trio were not actively racing at this point, but simply giving the tyres the required breather. At no point did Mercedes rediscover its usual speed, but with both cars on the prime tyres Hamilton was hopeful that he could hang on at this pace, run longer, get back onto the super-soft and thereby have fresher, faster tyres for the last stint.
He was just beginning to think he might be in the mix for victory after all when his day went badly wrong. A sudden power loss on lap 24 – Rosberg sailing past him down to turn one, followed by sundry others over the next few laps as the team desperately tried to work out what was wrong and if there was a solution. There wasn’t. The problem was a leaking clamp on the turbo – and he’d subsequently be retired from a lowly position.
Just as Hamilton had encountered his problem, Vettel let rip, judging that he’d now done enough pussy-footing to bring his two-stop strategy back on schedule. Having been circulating in the mid-1min 52sec range, he scorched around in 1min 50.5sec on the 27th lap.
1 Mercedes 463
2 Ferrari 310
3 Williams 198
4 Red Bull 139
5 Force India 69
6 Lotus 50
7 Toro Rosso 41
8 Sauber 26
9 McLaren 17
10 Manor 0
He had the whole shape of the race sussed out in his head. “I knew it was impossible for Daniel or anyone else to do 40-odd laps as the tyre would just fall apart at the end, so at 35 or 36 laps to go I knew we were approaching the pitstop window. I knew that the Mercedes [Rosberg] was on the prime tyre, which would allow them to be on the option for the final stint, so I said ‘OK, a couple [of slow laps] to go’. When the pitstop window opened for the final stint, I knew I had to go for it, open out a gap over Daniel of three to four seconds so we can react in case he dives into the pits. Then I went for it.”
Ricciardo responded as best he could, but again the Renault was left rather breathless to the Ferrari’s potent engine modes (the Monza upgrade) and having got to within less than a second of the lead, Daniel was left flailing as Vettel pulled out his targeted 4sec. Ricciardo’s only hope now was that the Ferrari’s tyres might wilt before his again before it was time to come in. As they fought out their battle, Räikkönen was again left behind, but was comfortably able to pull away from Rosberg, Kvyat and Bottas.
Meanwhile Verstappen had been making great progress further back, scything past cars as soon as he came upon them and by the 30th lap he was up to 11th, aided by the retirement of Massa with a boxful of neutrals. But Max was to be hindered on lap 37 by the timing of the apparently drunk man – he appeared to have been making rather a full night of it – in climbing through a gap in the Anderson Bridge and onto the track.
He may simply have been looking for somewhere to relieve himself, because he appeared not initially to realise he was on the race track – only hurrying up his weaving passage across the road as the Ferrari of race leader Vettel appeared under full acceleration out of turn 10. The safety car was immediately deployed as the 27-year-old man was located and arrested. It probably wasn’t the best end to his night but was so much better than it could easily have been…
Those who’d already made their second stops – Kvyat, Pérez, Nasr, Grosjean, Maldonado, Verstappen and Sainz – were disadvantaged as everyone else effectively got a free stop. Ricciardo had been starting to creep back upon Vettel but probably not by enough to have caused him a problem. Kvyat was a safety car victim for the second time, losing fifth place to Bottas. The order behind the safety car this time was: Vettel, Ricciardo, Rosberg, Bottas, Kvyat, Pérez, Grosjean, Maldonado, Button, Nasr, Verstappen, Sainz, Ericsson, Rossi and Stevens. Alonso’s McLaren had been retired with a gearbox problem. He’d been running between Nasr and Button.
Rossi had found himself third on the road in the safety car queue, but had no radio so the team had no way of relaying the FIA instruction that he could un-lap himself. As he continued to run just behind Ricciardo, so the race was restarted at the end of the 40th lap. He got out of the way as best he could – onto the run-off at turn one – but as faster cars scrabbled to get past, it eventually created a bit of carnage.
Button tried to go down the inside of the baulked Maldonado into turn 14 – and got his front wing chopped off. JB pitted for a replacement but later went out with a gearbox problem similar to Alonso’s – another sorry day for this once great team. Maldonado’s car took some diffuser damage but was still running, although both Lotuses were struggling with overheating gearboxes.
Verstappen and Sainz were both on fresh option tyres and upon the resumption of racing were all over the prime-tyred Nasr, Max going past the Sauber in spectacular fashion around the outside of turn 14, with Sainz following through soon after. The Toro Rosso pair were then quickly upon the hobbled Lotuses of Maldonado and Grosjean and closing down fast on the prime-tyred Pérez.
But just as they caught the Sauber, their option tyres were surrendering their grip, allowing Sergio to contain them. Because Sainz’s tyres were newer than Verstappen’s Toro Rosso figured Carlos might be able to attack and pass Pérez if only Verstappen would stand aside. If Carlos couldn’t do it, he’d give the place back to Max before the end. Verstappen reacted angrily to the request.
Sainz never did get close enough to Verstappen – as in fact his tyres were finished too and team principal Franz Tost later conceded that Verstappen had been correct not to comply. The Lotuses faded further and were devoured by the Saubers of Nasr and Ericsson. Grosjean eventually retired to save the gearbox. Maldonado pitted seven laps from the end for a set of fresh options and returned to take a crack at fastest lap.
Although that honour eventually went to Ricciardo as he kept the pressure on Vettel, Maldonado got within a tenth despite the damaged diffuser – reflecting the power of tyre grip around this place. Something that Mercedes could only ponder on. “We spoke to the drivers,” said Toto Wolff, “and the degradation was massive and unexplainable for us. We believe this is a circuit-specific problem on tyres.”
Whatever it was – and the conspiracy theorists were having a field day – it was of little concern to Vettel and Ricciardo, who really had been in a class of their own all weekend. Räikkönen’s distant third gave him little satisfaction, Kimi just a long way from Vettel’s level around this place. Rosberg was at least able to keep himself out of reach of Bottas who was busy fending off Kvyat at the end, with Pérez doing a quietly effective job in bringing the Force India home seventh. Verstappen, Sainz and Nasr were the final points scorers. We had a different outcome to usual, a different pattern. And if that’s genuine, that’s all good.
A few hours later it was a Singapore Monday morning, the temporary circuit furniture already largely dismantled. Turn seven was now an innocuous traffic light-controlled junction with buses, cars and motorbikes buzzing around – and it’s as if F1, its night time complications, conspiracies and intrigues was just a dusky mirage.
The 91st Schumacher-equalling victory will just have to wait, as Lewis Hamilton’s Russian weekend cascaded out of his control through an unfortunate series of events, albeit triggered by his own…
With all the talk of Lewis Hamilton trying to match Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 victories in Formula 1, it was almost tempting fate that the championship leader would falter.…
From a precarious position in Q2, Lewis Hamilton took pole position in qualifying for the 2020 F1 Russian Grand Prix. But is he in the best position for tomorrow's race?
Lamborghini CEO and former Scuderia Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali will replace Chase Carey as Formula 1 CEO in 2021. Carey had already confirmed that he is stepping down from…