The Singapore Grand Prix never fails to deliver an exciting and nail biting race. Although all the stuff in between was a bit boring, the start and finish proved to be the most exhilarating of the season.
Jumping right into the all-important start. For once we actually didn’t see a major change up the front – Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton all stayed in their 1-2-3 formation into Turn 1 as havoc reigned in the mid field. Max Verstappen was the instigator of what became a race changing incident. After starting from 4th, Verstappen got a terrible getaway and was heavily bogged down on the inside line. Carlos Sainz behind him got a mediocre and average start whilst Nico Hulkenberg behind Sainz shot off the line like a bullet. As Sainz went to go around Verstappen, Hulkenberg attempted to as well, and 2 doesn’t go into 1. Hulkenberg’s left rear tagged Sainz’s front left and the former was thrown spinning into the inside pit wall, inducing an immediate safety car. As Jenson Button swerved to avoid the incident, he sliced his front wing and Valtteri Bottas’s left rear off – ruining both drivers’ races.
This early safety car was vital in opening up a two-stop strategy as the teams gained effective free laps without wear. On the restart, it became clear who the biggest loser from the start was: Max Verstappen. He had dropped behind both Toro Rosso’s and he was forced to stay there for a fair majority of the race. Verstappen did move up the pack slightly when Carlos Sainz was shown the black and orange flag for a damaged barge board (from Hulkenberg collision at the start). Sainz wouldn’t recover from this untimely pit stop and would finish 14th after looking like a strong contender for points all weekend.
But in all honesty, there was only one talking point throughout the race. As early as lap 9, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton were told they needed serious brake management. These constant radio messages continued to the end of the Grand Prix as fans were certainly sitting on the edge of their seats in anticipation of a major problem or a repeat of Canada 2014.
More importantly, as the race approached lap 15, the top 4 still remained as Rosberg, Ricciardo, Hamilton and Raikkonen – and they were all about to make their first stops. Crucially, Ricciardo and Raikkonen ran with the super-soft tires in their first stop, made on laps 16 and 18 respectively. On the other hand, both Mercedes opted for the soft tires – a choice that would have a substantially large bearing on the race outcome. As Hamilton complained about being put on the slower soft tires, the 4th placed Kimi Raikkonen began to catch him. The same, however, couldn’t be said for Ricciardo who continued to fall away from the continued dominance of Rosberg.
Laps 18 and 19 provided the best battle of the race as Daniil Kvyat pushed Max Verstappen to the limit. On the exact same tires, Kvyat fought hard at Turn 14, holding onto the inside line and cementing his dominance through the following right hander of Turn 15. On the very next lap, Verstappen attempted an attack through Turn 7, a common overtaking spot. Kvyat defended aggressively and forced Verstappen over the kerbs until he was ultimately forced to yield. Kvyat was feeding the Dutchman who had replaced him at Red Bull his own medicine! This was by far the best racing we’ve seen in a long time from Daniil Kvyat and he certainly deserved to stay ahead of Verstappen who later complained on the radio, saying: “come on man!”
After the race looked as though it had simmered down, it was Lewis Hamilton who set it on fire again. After Raikkonen had overtaken the Brit in the 2nd stint, Mercedes felt they had nothing to lose and decided it would be better to try and get ahead of Raikkonen with a 3 stop. Ferrari then unsuccessfully tried to cover Hamilton. The undercut was too powerful and Hamilton propelled himself into the podium positions.
However, this would have a strong domino effect as Ricciardo opted to pit onto the super-softs in an attempt to cover Hamilton and then pressure Rosberg, as he to had nothing lose. Nico Rosberg, who had comfortably led the whole race, attempted to also switch to the three-stop, but it was too late – Ricciardo would have had the jump on him. Thus Rosberg was forced to stay on the slow and aging soft tires whilst the 2nd placed Ricciardo would be on fresh super-softs.
The equation was relatively simple then – 14 laps to close a 27 second gap on Rosberg whilst catching him at roughly 2.5 seconds per lap. Disappointingly, life isn’t fair and back-markers would seriously restrict the Australian in fighting his way to Rosberg. In the end, Ricciardo would fall an agonizing 0.488 seconds short of Rosberg as Red Bull certainly gave Mercedes a true scare.
The ironic touch to this thrilling finale is that Mercedes almost jeopardized their own race win. In an effort to restore Hamilton to the podium, he made a 3rd stop which eventually triggered Ricciardo’s stop. Had the Australian been successful in taking the top spot of the podium, Hamilton would have indirectly cost Rosberg his 22nd career win. This would have certainly produced an interesting podium.
In terms of the championship battle, Nico Rosberg retakes the lead and pulls a 8 point gap on Hamilton. Importantly, if Mercedes return to normal in Malaysia – then it will mean Rosberg will still retain the lead if he finishes 2nd to Hamilton, giving him a spare race before losing the lead. This puts him in a phenomenal position as we head to the final 6 rounds of 2016.
To conclude, Singapore didn’t fail on its promise of an entertaining and excruciating close race. I was on the edge of my seat for the last 20 laps and that’s what Formula One is all about, being on the edge. We return to Malaysia in two weeks time with anticipation of more of the same and another twist in this awesome and enticing championship battle.
(by Steven Walton)