Lewis Hamilton opened a 40-point advantage in Formula 1's title battle with a commanding win as Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel floundered. Motorsport Week presents its Singapore Grand Prix conclusions.
Supreme Hamilton in the form of his life
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have taken four victories from the last five Grands Prix – and it could easily have been none. The relationship between driver and team has flourished to a new high, with Hamilton extracting the maximum from his own ability and Mercedes optimising everything it can, rounding off some previously rough edges. Hamilton’s pole position lap was as spellbindingly breath-taking as it was unexpected, the effort clear to see through his body language – and that of a beaten Sebastian Vettel. Their respective Q3 laps set the tone for the race, given the lack of action, and Hamilton remained unflustered when the lapped traffic briefly worked against him. Hamilton had a slow start to the season (as he often does) but over the last run of Grands Prix has reached a new peak that his rivals cannot match. He is creeping towards a point where Michael Schumacher’s all-time win record no longer looks completely out of reach and in this form, hopes of an enthralling title decider in Abu Dhabi are receding with each passing session.
Vettel and Ferrari threw away victory in Germany and squandered strong opportunities in Hungary and Italy but nonetheless remained buoyant heading to Singapore. It had good reason to, given Vettel’s previous Marina Bay form and the inherent pace of the SF71H. The weekend, though, unravelled, and cracks were evident. Vettel hit the wall during practice, costing him half of the FP2 session in which the most representative race simulations are undertaken, and the decision to take on Ultrasofts in Q2 backfired. Vettel felt he could put in a quick enough time that would have left Ferrari starting on its desired compound, but the pit wall over-ruled its driver, and that strategy was abandoned. It was an unnecessary complication. It left Vettel without the optimum rhythm heading into Q3, in which session Ferrari sent its drivers out behind the Mercedes drivers – another setback due to the varying out-lap warm-up strategies on Hypersofts for the respective cars (Ferrari fast, Mercedes slow). Vettel qualified only third – but a feisty start, aided by better driveability through Turn 5, netted him second. That proved to be the high point as Ferrari inexplicably misheard a Hamilton radio message (that both Vettel and his engineer discounted anyway) before pulling the pin first. Dropping Vettel behind the yet-to-stop Sergio Perez skewered his prospects and in staying out for a few laps longer Max Verstappen jumped ahead. Taking on Ultrasofts also meant Vettel was set for an evening of tyre saving, consigned to third place, without any other drama. It was an understandable gamble but one that was always unlikely to come off, and cost Vettel three more points. And irrespective of the setbacks, Ferrari simply wasn’t quick enough overall. This was not the cataclysmic disaster of 2017, but a limp effort acted as a further blow to its title ambitions, and raised further doubts over the capability of both driver and team.
Alonso proves his worth
At each Grand Prix where he has reached the chequered flag this year Fernando Alonso has done so in the points – quite a remarkable feat given the inadequacies of McLaren’s MCL33. Alonso missed out on Q3, but that proved beneficial as it meant he could start on the favoured Ultrasoft tyres, from where he went on to record seventh place. Alonso has out-qualified Stoffel Vandoorne 15-0, and in race trim in Singapore was quicker on 46 of the 56 non-Safety Car laps. Taking traffic into account somewhat mitigates the deficit, but Vandoorne’s pace in clean air was still slower than Alonso’s, as the Spaniard moved on to 50 points for the season. He could still finish the year as the lead midfield driver, which would be an achievement of sorts before he bows out for pastures new. McLaren will certainly miss his exploits in 2019.
Q2/3 tyre mess needs sorting
Without taking anything away from Alonso, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Charles Leclerc, tyre strategy was too influential during the Singapore Grand Prix. The trio started 11-12-13 and went on to finish 7-8-9 as those that made Q3 were skewered by the regulation stipulating that they must start on their Q2 qualifying tyre – in this instance the Hypersoft. Such was the difference in degradation between the Hypersoft and Ultrasoft that having a faster car proved to be a penalty. There were some mitigating circumstances: Esteban Ocon was eliminated at the start while both Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were compromised behind the early-stopping Sergey Sirotkin, and the Mexican then lost his head and his hopes of points. But even so, failing to make Q3 was a better option for the race. “We paid for the extraordinary qualifying,” quipped Perez on having to start on Hypers. “I think it was a frustrating race for everyone who qualified between seventh and 10th on the hypersofts,” said Romain Grosjean. “It was such a poor tyre in the race. We did 10 laps and they completely went, while the ultrasofts did, I don’t know how many laps, 40? So, it’s almost better not to qualify in the top-10. Maybe we need to think about that a little bit because I felt like I pushed really hard in qualifying and in the race every single lap.” Divergent strategies are welcomed in racing but when some drivers are consigned to start on one compound there is certainly an element of unfairness. When there is such a difference between the two softest compounds it cannot be right that starting 1th is better than starting seventh.
Perez loses his head
The sight of Esteban Ocon being turfed into the wall and out of the race was a sad form of symbolism for the off-track driver merry-go-round. That it was Force India team-mate Perez whose wheel-on-wheel contact truncated Ocon’s evening angered the Silverstone-based squad, which duly implemented team orders for the foreseeable future. Perez claimed that he was too busy concentrating on Grosjean to spot Ocon (a thin excuse) and later apologised to the Merc-backed young gun. But his racecraft against Sergey Sirotkin was bizarre in the extreme, as he expressed frustration to his team at being dropped behind the Russian post-stop, and suggested that the Williams driver’s tactics warranted looking at (they weren’t). He was eventually poised to pass Sirotkin only to needlessly swipe across as they exited Turn 17, a manoeuvre that only succeeded in wrecking Perez’s race and earning him some warranted criticism. Mika Salo suggested that had he been a steward he would have pushed for a black flag, and the widespread view was that a drive-through penalty was a relatively light punishment for such an action.