Preview: Five key talking points ahead of the Singapore GP
Formula 1 begins its end-of-year ‘flyaway’ races with its only fully-fledged night race in Singapore. Motorsport Week takes a look at the key talking points ahead of its jaunt to the vibrant city state.
Can Vettel strike back?
Sebastian Vettel’s Italian Grand Prix could not have gone much worse, as the unravelling of his own prospects were exacerbated by team-mate Charles Leclerc’s anointing as Ferrari’s new hero. That it came 11 years after Vettel was exulted as Formula 1’s new prospect was seen as symbolic of the generational shift. He was the future once. But to dismiss Vettel would be rash. This has clearly been a troublesome year, compounded by mistakes, and it must rank as one of the least convincing campaigns in history by such a great. Vettel has spoken of not getting the SF90 into the window he craves, though it has been just three races since a superb last-to-second charge in Germany. Singapore is an event where Vettel has previously thrived, demolishing the opposition so convincingly on occasion that it was as if he was racing in a different category. It would be a good time to put Leclerc in the shade.
But will the car allow it?
When Ferrari has held the aces in 2019 more often than not it has been Leclerc leading the charge: Bahrain, Azerbaijan (until the Q2 crash), Austria, Belgium, Italy. If Vettel can turn the tables this weekend it would be a welcome return to form for an all-time great. But even if he beats the 21-year-old it may not even be enough for a second-row start or even a podium finish. Ferrari’s recent prowess in Belgium and Italy underlined its strengths but also starkly underlined its current weaknesses. Its low-drag concept already left it down on aerodynamic efficiency and ultimate downforce levels, and its pace at circuits that place an emphasis on either – or both – has been found wanting. And that lack of downforce has a spiralling effect on tyre life, limiting Ferrari’s potential even further at a venue where preserving the rubber – especially the rears – is vital. Ferrari has led every single session since Formula 1’s summer break but that is unlikely to last.
They’ve had the pain, now for the gain?
Prior to the summer break, the combination of Max Verstappen, Red Bull and Honda was potent. Verstappen took superb victories in Austria and Germany, allied to the pole in Hungary, to emphasise his own brilliance, the gains made by Red Bull in ironing out prior chassis weaknesses, and the progress Honda had unearthed with its power unit. It expected to struggle more in Belgium and Italy and so it came to fruition, effectively sacrificing the latter in order to take on Honda’s Spec 4 power unit, though Verstappen’s Turn 1 misjudgements at both events cost points. Now, hopefully, free of penalties it releases Verstappen to attack full throttle at a race where he and Red Bull should be firmly in the ballpark. Last year Verstappen was superb at the 23-turn circuit, eclipsed only by Lewis Hamilton, who was exceptional. Is it now Verstappen’s turn to light up the night?
Bottas’ last big chance?
Valtteri Bottas clawed back two points on Hamilton in Italy and stressed post-race that the difference in the standings is not “night and day”, though it is a bold claim from someone still 62 points in arrears. Bottas must be regarded as favourite for victory in Russia. After all, he was superb there with Williams, took his maiden victory in 2017, and would have won there last year too without the intervention of team orders. But first, he must negotiate the potential hurdle of Singapore. Hamilton has a supreme record at Marina Bay but it remains one of Bottas’ weakest venues, taking third in 2017 and fourth in 2018 while Hamilton triumphed. His one-lap deficit to Hamilton was nearly seven-tenths of a second on both occasions. If Bottas is to pull off the unlikeliest of title comebacks then Singapore is a place where he needs to step up and deliver.
Will it go to time?
The most recent race in Italy was the sixth-shortest in Formula 1 history (excluding those rain-shortened or red-flagged events), as Charles Leclerc greeted the chequered flag after 1h 15m 26.665s of full-throttle competition. Monza is typically the shortest race of the campaign on account of its high-average speed, but the championship has headed to the track with one of the slowest average speeds (Monaco is also low but the race is scheduled for only 260km rather than 305km). On three occasions the Singapore Grand Prix has been timed out, running to just 58 of its scheduled 61 laps in 2017, due to the litany of Safety Car periods. Last year’s relatively clean grand prix still ran to 1h 51m 11.611s, making it the shortest of the 11 races held at the venue so far – a whopping 36 minutes longer than the recent encounter in Italy. It is a factor teams have to consider when contemplating race strategies, while for drivers it pushes them to their limit.