After three consecutive victories for McLaren, it was the turn of Red Bull racing to climb to the top of the podium at Singapore as Sebastian Vettel took his second win of the season to position himself as the primary challenger to world championship leader Fernando Alonso. We might have seen a different result had Lewis Hamilton, the winner at Monza, not suffered McLaren’s second technical failure in two races on lap 23, but it made little difference to Fernando Alonso who, despite a disappointing qualifying performance, picked up his eighth podium in 14 races this season.
Let’s start things off by looking at Lewis Hamilton’s weekend. Hamilton went into the race in Singapore on a high after two victories from pole position in the last three races, including an utterly dominant display in round 13 at Monza. Hamilton would certainly have hoped for a similar result in Singapore, and after a brilliant qualifying performance on Saturday many believed that was exactly what would happen in the race.
Hamilton was clearly the class of the field in qualifying. His pole lap was nearly half a second faster than anyone else, with Pastor Maldonado the only driver to set a time within five tenths of a second of the Englishman, some four and a half seconds back. Given the performances of Hamilton and Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel throughout practice and the first two parts of qualifying, a close battle between the two was expected in Q3, but it never materialised as the German failed to better his Q2 time, while Hamilton improved by three tenths of a second. Red Bull expected better and, that being the case, the race was expected to deliver a close battle between the two drivers.
That’s pretty much exactly what happened in the first 23 laps of the race. Hamilton got away cleanly from pole position and Vettel immediately slotted into second, passing Williams driver Pastor Maldonado on the exit of turn two after the Venezuelan went slightly deep into turn one, compromising his exit in the following corner. Thereafter, Hamilton and Vettel started to move away from the field, with the gap between the two generally fluctuating between around 1.5 and 2.5 seconds.
The status quo was maintained through the first round of pit stops and the race seemed to be unfolding as many had expected. However, disaster struck for Hamilton about 10 laps in to his second stint. A trail of smoke from the rear of the car must have alerted Vettel to trouble and the German soon sailed past the leading McLaren as Hamilton desperately struggled to find a gear, but came up empty, retiring from the race. The Stevenage born driver said, after the race “It was gutting when the car stopped, I was cruising. I was managing the gap and could have pushed more, I had the pace. I think today would have been an easy win.”
His McLaren team certainly won’t have been happy to suffer their second retirement in two races following Jenson Button’s fuel pump issue in Italy. It didn’t, though, sound like the team were totally surprised by the failure on this occasion with Hamilton’s race engineer saying to his driver over the radio “We have a gearbox failure. I’m sorry, we did everything we could yesterday”, indicating that the team knew that there was a problem and had done what they could to enable the unit to last the race.
Clearly, though, whatever the team had done was not enough, and if it is the case that the team rolled the dice on a gearbox that was not in the best of health, then questions need to be answered at McLaren yet again. Surely, if Hamilton’s gearbox was indeed suspect, it would have been better to change the unit and accept the five place grid penalty. A sixth place start in an extremely quick car would not have been a disaster for Hamilton or McLaren and a win from there would certainly not have been out of the question. Earlier in the season, several operational issues cost both of their drivers a number of world championship points, and with technical failures now creeping in, their championship chances have been severely damaged.
It’s very easy with hindsight, of course, but one thing’s for sure; Sebastian Vettel won’t have cared one iota about McLaren’s problems. After suffering from his own technical issues this season – including a second alternator failure in the last round of the season – and being disappointed with his Q3 lap on Saturday, the defending world champion would have been delighted with the result on Sunday, which put him right back into prime position to be the main challenger to Fernando Alonso in this year’s world drivers’ championship. As Vettel acknowledged after the race, it’s a shame that the fans were deprived of what might have been a great battle between Vettel and Hamilton at Marina Bay, but after the McLaren driver’s retirement, the German kept his head through two safety car periods – the first caused by HRT’s Narain Karthikeyan hitting the wall in the tunnel under the grandstand on lap 34, and the second very soon afterwards when Michael Schumacher careered into the back of Torro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne – to take what turned out to be a very easy second win of the season.
Vettel now moves back into second place in the world drivers’ championship, but it’s a fragile second place given the technical trouble that Red Bull have themselves had this season. Hamilton, having now dropped to fourth place in the championship, is 23 points behind Vettel now with Kimi Raikkonen between the two, seven points ahead of Hamilton after picking up eight points for his sixth place finish in Singapore. Both drivers are within a single race win of the 2010 and 2011 world drivers’ champion.
Far more secure, though, is Fernando Alonso. The Ferrari driver finished third at Marina Bay, matching his Monza result. After a disappointing qualifying, which saw him take fifth on the grid after Ferrari’s new rear wing failed to deliver the expected improvements, Alonso capitalised on the chaos around him in the race to slip calmly into a podium position.
With six races left to go this season, the Spaniard is now 29 points ahead of Vettel in the race for this year’s title. Although that’s only six points more than the gap from Vettel to Hamilton in the championship standings, an advantage in excess of 25 points is important psychologically as it represent more that the points haul for a race win.
What will really give Alonso that little extra element of security, though, is his amazing consistency and the seemingly bulletproof reliability of his F2012. While the other championship contenders have had their operational issues, mechanical failures and race retirements, Ferrari and Alonso have serenely strolled through the season so far with barely a scratch on them. Alonso has finished and scored points in every race this season, bar the Belgian grand prix, where he was taken out of contention at the first corner through no fault of his own. Even at Spa, though, Alonso had the good fortune to see Lewis Hamilton eliminated from contention in the same incident.
At Singapore, the Spaniard passed Ayrton Senna’s record for number of podium finishes, and who’s to say that he won’t equal the late, great Brazilian’s haul of world titles. It certainly seems like everything is falling into place for Alonso to pick up this third world drivers’ championship, and his first for Ferrari. The combination of consistency, reliability and an element of luck is certainly looking like a tough one for the rest of the field to compete with. Despite not having the best car, Alonso is still in pole position for the 2012 Formula 1 world drivers’ championship with six races left to run.