Nico Rosberg survived race-long braking concerns to hold off a hard-charging Daniel Ricciardo over the final 15 laps to squeeze out a victory by 0.4-seconds in the Singapore Grand Prix. He also regained the lead in the Formula 1 drivers’ world championship from his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton, who finished third.
A year ago, the Mercedes juggernaut ran aground under the lights of Singapore’s Marina circuit. The team that had dominated the Grand Prix until then suddenly found it impossible to make Pirelli’s super-soft tyres work, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel taking pole and the Scuderia’s last race victory. Mercedes left Singapore determined to demonstrate that the kerfluffle was just a one-time stumble. Indeed, the team formed what was a mostly separate team to investigate the what, how, and why and produce a path of redemption before taking on the 2016 race.
By the start of qualifying, a few things were much clearer. While Mercedes clearly had a grip on this season’s Pirelli tire compound management, both Red Bull and Ferrari were now shoulder-to-shoulder with them on race pace and outright speed, with Max Verstappen seeming to be the driver with the best combined speed and pace to take the fight to Mercedes.
Following qualifying, the results spoke of just how difficult it was to rise to fight Mercedes’ technical expertise on equal terms. Verstappen could only grab fourth on the grid while locking wheels everywhere and complaining that the car was driving him. It was teammate Ricciardo who snatched the front row from an out-of-phase Lewis Hamilton. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen would start fifth, while teammate Sebastian Vettel qualified 22nd on Saturday after suffering a broken rear roll bar, forcing him to three-wheel through corners on the Marina Bay Street Circuit.
On the pole was a rejuvenated Nico Rosberg, who put in the best qualifying lap of his career at just the right moment. Mercedes had indeed solved their tire mystery, and Rosberg bristled with relaxed confidence.
At the start, no sooner had Nico Rosberg jumped into the lead heading into Turn 1 than the safety car was activated. Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India had pirouetted into the pit wall after contact with Carlos Sainz. Hulkenberg had made his “best start of the season” from eighth on the grid but was squeezed between Sainz and his Toro Rosso teammate Daniil Kvyat, as Sainz moved right to avoid the slow-starting Max Verstappen.
Just after the race restart on lap 3, Rosberg narrowly avoided a running track marshal caught by surprise as the pack approached the first corner. Barely missing him after a 275kph flyby, Rosberg quickly pulled away from Ricciardo who was under attack from Hamilton. Then, just as Rosberg had stretched his lead to four seconds as the race settled down, both Mercedes drivers’ engineers sent warnings about developing brake management issues.
Hamilton, in Ricciardo’s dirty air, immediately began to fall away while Rosberg in clean air was able to carry on extending his lead to five seconds.
Ricciardo, who along with Verstappen, had started on the more stable supersoft tyre, pitted for another set of the same compound on lap 15. Hamilton joined them, switching from his ultrasofts for softs. A lap later, Rosberg stopped for his set of softs handing the lead over Kimi Raikkonen. The Ferrari driver would go to lap 17 before changing his ultrasofts for the slightly slower, but more dependable supersofts.
Rosberg was able to maintain his gap over Ricciardo, while Hamilton began to slowly fall back from the Red Bull and into the DSR range of Raikkonen, who was going quickly in fourth.
For the next 16 laps, the pace and gaps between the players remained somewhat static, as each driver tried to conserve and protect their cars and positions for the late race push. Through the second pit stops, the order remained the same. The only change came when Raikkonen came in for his second stop for softs, allowing the Ferrari to pull clear of Hamilton when he pitted a lap later.
From there, Rosberg and Ricciardo continued unopposed in first and second. Hamilton, however, had called in asking for a “plan” that could take him to the front. Mercedes responded with a switch to “plan B” – introducing a three stop scenario –Hamilton could press harder.
Hamilton then closed on Raikkonen and then pitted for supersofts on lap 45. Ferrari responded with Raikkonen pitting one lap later; Hamilton was able to take over third as a result.
Significantly, Red Bull used this scenario to modify Ricciardo’s schedule to a three stopper. He came in for his final stop on lap 47 to move onto the supersofts, emerging 27 seconds behind Rosberg.
Ricciardo instantly lit the afterburners, setting fastest lap after fastest lap against Rosberg, who Mercedes had kept on a two-stopper.
Over the next 13 laps, Ricciardo’s pace verged on white hot as he decimated Rosberg’s lead by as much as three seconds faster per lap. In the end, Ricciardo was able to come within a full sniff of the Mercedes exhaust as Rosberg managed to squeeze out a 0.4-sec win. Hamilton would finish third, 2.1-seconds ahead of the frustrated Raikkonen. It was Rosberg’s 200th F1 race and extended his lead over Hamilton to eight points in the drivers’ championship.
Sebastian Vettel came home a determined fifth after starting dead last on the grid. Max Verstappen finished sixth, passing Alonso in the final laps of the Grand Prix to finally recover a few points from his disastrously slow start. Sergio Perez hung on with a two-stop strategy to capture eighth place for Force India ahead of Kvyat in ninth; his first points finish since the British Grand Prix. Kevin Magnussen came home tenth giving Renault its first points since the Russian Grand Prix back in April.
A disappointed Kimi Raikkonen felt he could have made it to the end of the Grand Prix without the final pit stop that dropped him behind Lewis Hamilton. Raikkonen had pulled ahead of Hamilton on track after the Mercedes driver made his third stop, 16 laps from the end, intending to attack Raikkonen on fresh tyres. Ferrari chose not to wait for Hamilton to make up the time lost during the stop, instead immediately countering the move by bringing in Raikkonen a lap later, ceding his third place to Hamilton. With Raikkonen on just 13-lap old soft compound tyres, and track position at Singapore absolutely key, Ferrari clearly threw away Raikkonen’s podium finish.
Ferrari saw an opportunity when Sebastian Vettel’s rear roll bar snapped and ran with it. The Scuderia decided to take advantage of the four-time world champion’s disastrous Q1 session to fit a new engine and gearbox to his car, effectively doing so without a penalty.
The award goes to the sprinting first corner track marshal who barely managed to avoid Rosberg’s 275kph flyby at the race’s unexpected restart. There’s someone who needs to buy a lottery ticket.
Singapore signalled that any remaining race team development resources have now shifted to building the 2017 cars. Any radical transformation of an F1 team’s competitive chances will now have to wait until Australia next year at best.
On to Malaysia in two weeks.