Lewis Hamilton survived chaos and carnage on his way to winning the 10th Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix, giving him three victories in a row and a commanding lead in the 2017 Drivers’ Championship.
Starting fifth behind Ferrari pole sitter Sebastian Vettel, Mercedes” Lewis Hamilton calmly cruised the wet-to dry Grand Prix after staying clear of the chaotic rain-induced first corner crash that took out the German and his Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen as well as fellow front row starter Max Verstappen. It was Hamilton’s 60th Grand Prix victory, a “three-peat” in Singapore and his seventh of the 2017 season.
On the run down to the first corner, Vettel sensed that the slow-starting Verstappen, positioned to his left, could possibly take the lead. Vettel moved to cover his line by pinching the Red Bull driver into a tighter approach. However, in the spray Vettel couldn’t see Kimi Raikkonen, who had made a demon start and was steaming up the left side of Verstappen. With Vettel closing the door from the right, the Dutchman was suddenly the meat in a Ferrari sandwich, leaving him nowhere to go. Trying to avoid Vettel, Verstappen was squeezed into Raikkonen and the resulting chain reaction eliminated both drivers. Vettel carried on for two more corners and retired.
Amazingly, it was the Scuderia’s first two-car first lap elimination in its history.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo started third and finished second as he too avoided the first lap fracas but didn’t have the speed to challenge Hamilton on either wet or dry tyres. Mercedes’ newly re-signed-for-2018 Valtteri Bottas took the third step on the podium after a steady but unspectacular drive.
Given the inherent superiority of Ferrari’s SF70H design for the circuit, Singapore was a must-win Grand Prix for Vettel to put pressure on rival Hamilton, yet the Englishman increased his points lead in the driver’s championship from three to 28.
This year marks Singapore’s tenth anniversary as a true jewel in Formula One’s crown. It began by hosting the first night-time event in Grand Prix history, its spectacular skyline a dramatic backdrop for three million watts of light that turn public roads into the bright but sinuous 3.1-mile track surface around Marina Bay. With a sellout attendance of more than 80,000 spectators as well as a permanent pit area with deluxe paddock facilities for deal makers, the Singapore Grand Prix is not just an event, it’s a national festival.
More importantly for the teams and drivers, Singapore is the first of seven final flyaway races that will determine the 2017 drivers’ and constructors’ crowns.
The tight Marina Bay Circuit requires cars carry all the downforce that can be screwed or glued on, as they spend more time braking and cornering than they do on the short straights. Setup demands a car that has more roll (read compliance) than other circuits, due to the combination of turns and the ever-present threat of rain. With most of the track surface used for daily traffic, oil buildup makes ultimate grip a fleeting dream, so wings are set for maximum downforce to push tyres into the surface. Without that “leverage” on the slick surface, tyres roll and burn their compound out very quickly.
A shorter wheelbase creates a more nimble or twitchy F1 car, depending on the circuit. Here, Singapore’s continuous flow of tight turns put both Ferrari and Red Bull chassis dynamics in their sweet spots. The longer wheelbase Mercedes’ chassis will take a few more milliseconds to react to steering input, so Hamilton and Bottas have to be ahead of their cars, anticipating each turn so as not to get behind on the flow from corner to corner. Power, for once, is secondary. Rather traction, turn-in grip and brake balance are key to starting and staying fast. All teams also expect frequent and some times catastrophic wheel rim damage from the unforgiving concrete walls that line the Marina Bay Circuit.
The circuit is known as a car killer, in the dry or wet. It’s also notorious for Safety Car periods, with a 90% chance of a least one per Grand Prix.
Red Bull’s duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo dominated both Q1 and Q2. However, Q3 saw Sebastian Vettel’s stellar 1m39.491s lap steal the pole for his 49th career pole.
Overnight rain washed away 75% of the rubber put down during both Friday’s practice and Saturday’s qualifying sessions. That rubber had provided so much grip that Vettel’s pole time was a new lap record for what is essentially one of the slower circuits during the season. That race speed potential had now vanished.
During the reconnaissance laps, intermittent rain dampened the track, required every driver to reassess breaking points, brake balance and grip. Even more ominously, Kimi Raikkonen radioed in on his final lap that rain was now heavier.
There is no problematic time for rain developing than with 15-minutes before the start. With international broadcast timing set, rapidly developing rain puts pressure on FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting to make a gut call. He can either: declare the race will start with a free choice of tyres, or place a hold for conditions to improve, or call the race as a wet event, starting on mandatory rain tyres. He is even mandated to have a safety car start should the rain or visibility be deemed dangerous.
Three minutes before the start, the FIA declared conditions wet, but were deemed safe for a standard standing start. Half the field would start on intermediate rain tyres, the other half would take the green on the full-depth versions. Both Vettel and Verstappen would start on Intermediates. Both believed that the spray and the lack of vision behind would be their ace in the hole. They would soon realise they were 180-degrees mistaken.
The tyre gamble each team accepted would be that if the rain stopped, the inters would be faster; should the rain increase, those starting cars on full depth rains would disappear into the mist and the lead.
At the lights, Vettel had great traction, while Verstappen bogged for an instant. In that brief slice of time, Raikkonen was along side and rapidly going for the lead. With Raikkonen pushing Verstappen toward the centre of the track, Vettel believed the Dutchman would gain an advantage for the first corner, and thus began squeezing Verstappen farther inside to try to neutralise his threat. Trapped between the two Ferraris, he tried to avoid Raikkonen while warding off Vettel.
Within three seconds, it was all over. Raikkonen’s rear wing and rear-right tyre touched Verstappen. The Finn pitched sideways kicking Verstappen into Vettel. Raikkonen’s car slid through the runoff area with enough momentum to come back onto the track, applying the “coupe de grace” to the still mobile Verstappen. Hamilton had ducked behind Raikkonen and avoided contact.
Fernando Alonso’s steered his McLaren close to the pit wall, picking up enough spots from the carnage to have a shot at the lead. It was just then that Raikkonen hit Verstappen’s damaged Red Bull for a second time, which then careened into Alonso’s McLaren with enough force to lift it off the tarmac for a horizontal 360-degree aerial spin. It landed seemingly no worse for wear and resumed racing.
Lewis Hamilton had joked before the race that he would need a miracle to finish on the podium, let alone win. He was now in the lead under the Safety Car. Four laps later the race restarted with the order Hamilton, Ricciardo, Hulkenberg, Perez and Renault’s recently cast-off Jolyon Palmer.
Ricciardo trailed Hamilton by four-seconds on Lap 7, while those who started on full-wets were gaining positions. Once the track began to dry, those full-wets gave up the fight by Lap 11.
Alonso had thought he had got by unscathed, but the team radioed they had lost all car data on Lap 8; he retired on Lap 10. It would be the tenth time in 14 races this season he failed to take the checkered flag.
Danill Kvyat lost the back end of his Toro Rosso and nosed into the barriers, bringing out the second caution, and Ricciardo pitted immediately for another set of intermediates; he returned in third place. Both Hamilton and Bottas stayed out. The track was back to green on Lap 15. Although the rooster-tails were gone, it remained very wet off line and inside the underpasses.
Hamilton was carrying on with his first set of intermediate tyres, gambling he could avoid a stop that might hand the lead to Ricciardo as he waited to see if any more rain would fall. He and Ricciardo would maintain an unchallenged race of their own all the way to the flag.
Eventually, the track dried enough to chance dry slicks. Kevin Magnussen was the first driver to switch, taking on the ultra-softs, with Felipe Massa matching.
When Magnussen and Massa’s lap times showed the dry tyre was faster, the majority of the field took pitstops, with Red Bull making their move on lap 29, pitting Ricciardo to undercut Hamilton. Mercedes countered the next lap and Hamilton rejoined in the lead. Over the next eight laps, Ricciardo, Hamilton and Bottas would trade fastest laps.
On Lap 39, Marcus Ericsson spun his Sauber and crashed on the Anderson Bridge. A third Safety Car period was called since it required a crew, rather than a crane to remove the damaged car.
Hamilton handled the restart perfectly, once again pulling clear of Riccardo. Due to the slower rain pace and three Safety Car periods, the race was shortened to the required FIA two hour time window and Hamilton calmly handling the 17-minutes remaining to the finish, taking the flag lead 4.507-seconds ahead of Ricciardo’s Red Bull.
Following Bottas was Carlos Sainz, his fourth place the best for Toro Rosso since the 2015 US Grand Prix. Fifth place belonged to Force India’s Perez, with Renault’s Jolyon Palmer getting his first points of the season in sixth. He was followed by Stoffel Vandoorne, Lance Stroll, Roman Grosjean and Esteban Ocon.
In the search for those elusive last kilos of downforce, Force India’s cars arrived with their vertical centreline sail tipped with a series of small horizontally curled “teeth” running along the top edge. Each car was immediately dubbed an “aerosaurus”.
The F1 circus arrived in Singapore as usual with news of changes. First up was the highly anticipated McLaren-Honda divorce. All that it took to ease the couple’s three-season pain was simply the moving of Renault power units from Toro Rosso to McLaren for 2018, with the junior Red Bull-owned squad then partnering with Honda, and the 2018 season loan of Carlos Sainz from Red Bull to Renault, just for the pain of the change. With Nico Hulkenburg staying with the Renault squad, poor Jolyon Palmer became the odd man out. Oh, and Auto Motor und Sport stated that Renault had also cancelled their engine program with Red Bull after 2018. The report received varying levels of denial.
McLaren’s engine move suggests Fernando Alonso will stay on board for 2018. The Spaniard counters he will study the Renault and McLaren 2018 specs and engine dyno results and then make his decision. Williams has already given Alonso a firm contract offer. The team is also looking at ever-young Robert Kubica. Stay tuned.
Now it’s on to the final round of the Malaysian Grand Prix after nearly two decades, coming up on October 1.