Quicksilver Hamilton shines in Singapore

The result couldn’t have been much better for Lewis Hamilton in Singapore. Pole position on Saturday was followed by a race win on Sunday. That win, coupled with his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg’s retirement, meant that Hamilton also took the lead in the world drivers’ championship; for only the second time this season.

Last time out in Italy it was Hamilton who had electronic problems at the start of the race, but in Singapore it was Rosberg who had his own electrical problem, a problem far more severe than the one his team-mate experienced in Monza. Rosberg’s issue started before he even left the pit lane and once he made it to the grid the team worked frantically on the steering column of his car, switching steering wheels and hoping for the best.

Rosberg's stricken Mercedes is pushed away from the grid

Rosberg’s stricken Mercedes is pushed away from the grid

As it turned out, despite all the team’s efforts, Rosberg’s problem was far from fixed. The German couldn’t pull away on the parade lap and although he did manage to start from the pit lane, the problem with his car was far from resolved. Rosberg had no control over his car’s systems. No ERS, no engine mode control, no DRS. Indeed, nothing at all other than the ability to change gears, and even that was severely hampered.

Rosberg struggled at the back of the field

Rosberg struggled at the back of the field

As Hamilton streaked into the lead from pole position, Rosberg struggled to pick his way through the Marussias and Caterhams at the tail of the field. When his first pit-stop came on lap 14 of the race, he didn’t even have an operational pit lane speed limiter, meaning he was forced to crawl into his pit box at a snail’s pace.

As it turned out, he couldn’t even manage to pull back out again. Even gear selection finally failed and as a result Rosberg was going absolutely nowhere. The team was forced to retire the car and Rosberg was forced to watch on while Hamilton took complete control of the race, pursued, at an ever-increasing distance by Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso.

Despite Hamilton’s iron grip of the race in the opening 32 laps, his victory turned out to be far from plain sailing in the end. Reliability was not the problem for Hamilton, though, the safety car was. Force India’s Sergio Perez suffered a front wing failure after contact with Adrian Sutil’s Sauber on lap 31.

The safety car disrupted the race in Singapore

The safety car disrupted the race in Singapore

The resulting debris triggered the safety car and put Hamilton and Mercedes in a difficult position. Both Red Bulls and Williams cars had already used both tyre compounds and would not stop again. Alonso decided to stop under safety car conditions and switch on to the softer compound tyre, meaning that he, too, had run both compounds. Hamilton and Mercedes, though, didn’t, meaning that they would have to stop again in the closing stages of the race.

The safety car finally returned to the pit lane on lap 38. Hamilton would have to build a gap of around 30 seconds over his rivals to be able to pit again and emerge in the lead. It was a massive ask, but Hamilton set about his task with relish, building a 3.3 second lead after just one lap. By lap 51 the gap was over 25 seconds, but his super soft tyres had had enough. He pitted on lap 52, emerging from the pits on fresh soft tyres behind Vettel, but crucially ahead of Ricciardo in third and Alonso in fourth.

A clearly delighted Hamilton celebrates his win

A clearly delighted Hamilton celebrates his win

Just two laps later, Hamilton wasn’t even behind Vettel. The Briton took maximum advantage of his far fresher tyres to make the move on the reigning world drivers’ champion at turn seven, with DRS assistance. And that was pretty much that. Hamilton once again pulled away from his rivals at a staggering rate of knots. In the remaining few laps – one less than the scheduled 61 due to the safety car period – Hamilton built an impressive lead over Vettel, with Ricciardo and Alonso close behind. The Stevenage-born racer eventually finished 13.5 seconds clear as he took his seventh victory of the season.

Second was a great result for Vettel in the end.  The quadruple world drivers’ champion has endured a miserable 2014  so far, watching on as Ricciardo managed three wins and usurped the German as the lead Red Bull driver.  In Singapore, though, Vettel beat Ricciardo fair and square.  It’ll be interesting to see whether this marks a shift in the Red Bull pecking order this year.  Ferrari were also much improved at Marina Bay, with Kimi Raikkonen looking fast all weekend and unlucky not to supplement Alonso’s fourth place finish with more than an eighth place finish.  But behind Hamilton the star of the race was undoubtedly Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso.  The Frenchman has lost his drive for next season to rising star Max Verstappen, but he made a great case for a drive elsewhere with sixth place in Singapore, matching his best ever result in Formula 1.

The man of the moment was definitely Hamilton, though.  His 25 point haul in Singapore means that he wiped out his 22 point deficit in the world drivers’ championship in one fell swoop. He now takes a three-point lead into Japan and, with two consecutive wins from pole position, the momentum is very much behind him. There are still five races to go, though, and with double points in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton, and for that matter Rosberg, will need no reminding that the championship battle is far from over.

The championship is as close as it’s ever been, though. It looks like it’s going to be a thrilling climax to the season. I suspect that there are twists and turns yet to come…

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It’s Singa-bore as Seb wins again

The formula 1 circus returned from the summer break with an air of anticipation after Lewis Hamilton brilliantly won the Hungarian grand prix.  Hope abounded that Mercedes driver Hamilton, or even Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso or Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen could put in a run of results that would enable them to put up a fight for the 2013 world drivers’ championship.  Three races on, and three victories for Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel, have pretty much ended the championship aspirations of the rest, though.

Rosberg managed to pass Vettel at the start, but couldn't make it stick

Rosberg managed to pass Vettel
at the start, but couldn’t make it stick

Victory in Singapore, by an astounding 32.6 seconds from Alonso’s Ferrari, looks to be the final nail in the coffin, and it was never in doubt from the point at which Nico Rosberg failed to make his first corner overtaking attempt stick.  As usual, Vettel seemingly effortlessly moved away from the rest, building a comfortable lead, which allowed him to control the race.

Daniel Ricciardo climbs out of his Toro Rosso after crashing out

Daniel Ricciardo climbs out of his
Toro Rosso after crashing out

Things might have changed when the safety car was deployed mid-race after Vettel’s future team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, crashed his Toro Rosso on lap 25.  The safety car was not well-timed for Vettel or indeed Rosberg, Mark Webber or Hamilton, all of whom didn’t stop while the rest of the field, including Alonso and Raikkonen pitted for fresh rubber.  You’d never have guessed it at the restart, though.

If Vettel’s gap building at the start of the race was impressive, his pace compared to the rest after the safety car came in to the pits at the end of lap 30 was nothing short of amazing.  The gap to Rosberg grew exponentially as the triple world drivers’ champion lapped around 2 seconds a lap faster than his rivals.  While Rosberg was at the front of a train of cars Vettel streaked into the distance.  Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton all stopped in quick succession on laps 40, 41 and 42, but Vettel stayed out until lap 45.

Where his team-mate and the two Mercedes cars had rejoined way down the field, temporarily out of points scoring positions, Vettel emerged from the pits still in the lead of the race, ahead of Alonso who made a two stop strategy work, where numerous others failed.  Vettel, though relentlessly built up a huge lead to finish well clear of the field in what must rank as one of his most comfortable victories.

Vettel fans will obviously be delighted with the German’s form after the summer break, and indeed with the manner of his victory in Singapore.  For the rest of the world’s formula 1 fans it might be getting a bit boring.  Certainly, the race in Singapore was pretty dull.  Had it not been for some frantic action in the last 15 laps or so of the race as Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton made their way through the field, passing cars that were two stopping with tyres that were ‘falling off the cliff’, the race would have been virtually absent of action. .

It would be unfair, though, to leave it at that, without mentioning the performances of Raikkonen and Alonso in more detail.  As I’ve already mentioned, Alonso managed to make a two stop strategy work for him where many of the cars and drivers that tried the same tactic failed, including the McLaren’s of Jenson Button – tantalisingly in a podium position in the closing stages of the race – and Sergio Perez.  Raikkonen also made a two stop strategy work, and as a result Alonso and Raikkonen finished second and third respectively, doing as much as they could to hang on to the coattails of Vettel in the championship.

Alonso, picyure early in the race, after making another brilliant start

Alonso, pictured early in the race,
after making another brilliant start

The two stop strategies of Alonso and Raikkonen were impressive in themselves, but considering that both drivers had poor grid positions their performances were impressive in themselves.  Raikkonen overcame the discomfort of a bad back to move steadily through the field from his 13th place starting position.  Where Raikkonen was steady, Alonso was anything but, putting himself in contention with another stunning start, moving himself up from seventh on the grid to third place by turn two.  In contrast, his Brazilian team-mate, Felipe Massa, could only finish where he started in sixth place.

Another man who could only finish where he started was Hamilton, who followed home his team-mate, Rosberg, in fifth place.  That fifth place finish was enough for him to maintain third place in the standings, albeit now just two points ahead of Raikkonen.  Alonso has certainly strengthened his grip on second place in the standings, with a 36 point lead of Hamilton, but it seems that he’s destined to lose out on yet another championship.  Vettel now stands 60 points clear at the head of the championship; more than two race wins worth of points in the lead.

Vettel celebrates as he crosses the line to win in Singapore

Vettel celebrates as he crosses the line to win in Singapore

Vettel’s performance in Singapore was incredibly impressive, matching his lead in the championship.  Not only has the German got the best car on the grid, but he’s also got lady luck on his side.  There was no greater illustration of that as the 26 year-old crossed the line to take victory, seconds after his team-mate, Mark Webber, retired; his car bursting into flames after a water pressure issue.

We move on next to Korea, in two weeks time.  At this stage, though, there’s nothing to suggest that the result will be any different.  Vettel may well take a fourth straight win next time out, perhaps also signally a fourth straight world drivers’ championship for the German.

Victory for Vettel, but Heartbreak for Hamilton in Singapore

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.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27
Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sebatian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Malaysia, 25 March 2012
By Morio (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

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.