Singapore always produces a surprise and this year was no different. The combination of Singapore’s heat, humidity and tight track with a now fast Ferrari SF90 combined for a processional first half.
Ferrari decided to take advantage of the slow pace to go even slower. With Leclerc in control, he slowed lap times by another percentage point, leaving Mercedes and Red Bull nowhere to find a gap to undercut the field.
Paradoxically, it was the success of Leclerc’s slow pace that encouraged Ferrari to gamble pitting Vettel early. The current practice had the Scuderia usually following a team procedure of having their leading driver (Leclerc) stop first.
The effect enabled Vettel to undercut the leader and teammate, Leclerc.
The pressure and pace picked up in the race’s second half, resulting in three Safety Cars. By then, Vettel had used his first pitstop advantage to hold the lead over a fast Leclerc, who was unhappy and let the team know. With 15-laps to go, he was told to save his engine and bring the car home safely. He declared, “I won’t do anything stupid, but this is not fair”.
Leclerc finished the race 2.6s behind his teammate to complete Ferrari’s first one-two of the 2019 season.
Max Verstappen took third place for Red Bull ahead of the two Mercedes, who also lost out in the pit stop/safety car shuffles.
The Singapore Grand Prix sits less than a hundred miles from the Equator, and the ever-present heat and humidity represent the toughest physical challenge a Formula One driver faces during the season.
Throughout the Grand Prix, each racer’s body battles against dehydration and heat stress. Drivers generally experience between 1.5 to 2 per cent dehydration, stressing their cognitive faculties to the max. During the two-hour race, they will also face a loss of as much as three kilos of body weight through sweat – the equivalent of 4% to 5% body-weight loss.
To prepare for this ordeal, each driver “pre-cools” his body. Wearing specially-designed cooling vests and ice towels around their neck to keep core body temperatures in check generally prevents the onset of heat stress for the first hour of the race. After that, the driver must depend on his season-long training to get him to the finish line.
Everyone expected that pole would be a battle between Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Mercedes had judged that Ferrari would struggle in Singapore and indeed, Vettel had the provisional pole but backed out of a messy last Q3 lap – and that opened the door for Hamilton. That opportunity lasted only a few seconds as the now clearly hooked-up Leclerc threw in a 1:36.217 lap for the pole that stunned Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes boss, Toto Wolff.
The Monegasque is fast-becoming a superstar with his latest performances. Leclerc now has five poles this season, more than any other driver, and would start with a 0.2s advantage, where grid position is so important. Hamilton dropped to second place, with Vettel starting third. Verstappen followed the German, and then Bottas and Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Alex Albon, starting in sixth place in his first-ever Singapore GP.
After Qualifying, Hamilton had stated that he would give it his all to take Leclerc into the first turn, but Ferrari’s young lion immediately took the lead and was in full control before Turn 1.
For the first 20 laps, Leclerc managed his pace beautifully. He quickly implemented Ferrari’s planned tactic of slowing the pack down in the first phase of the race to eliminate Mercedes or Red Bull from finding a gap to stop, rejoin into the field and gain track position from an undercut. By controlling the pace of the Singapore Grand Prix, unquestionably the toughest physical challenge of the year, none of the frontrunners wanted to stop early and drop into midfield scrum.
Leclerc was doing everything right.
However, the race for victory at the Singapore Grand Prix is always dependent on the timing of each the top four driver’s pit stops, which this year would occur between Lap 19 and 26.
On Lap 19, the Scuderia called in Vettel from third place as the first in the field to pit for fresh tyres. Ferrari had seen a hole in traffic that gave Vettel a slim advantage. With the change, his new rubber produced a pace advantage over Leclerc and Hamilton in front. Leclerc pitted one lap later, but the length of the Singapore lap meant he lost enough time on his worn soft tyres to forfeit the lead to Vettel.
While Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes followed Leclerc, his car seemed clearly the fastest of the top three cars for the first 20 laps. With the Ferrari able to use its high speed to hold off Hamilton, he didn’t have the pace to overtake Leclerc during the opening stint as he circulated in second place between the two Ferraris.
With Vettel and then Leclerc pitting, Hamilton was the only driver of the top three left on track on his starting tyres, and now he was losing time to the two Ferraris as well as Verstappen.
Mercedes decided to go longer into the race, expecting the traditional Safety Car segments would give Hamilton his dream (and now desperate) opening. It didn’t occur so Hamilton on his ageing soft tyres pitted on lap 26 – nine laps before the first Safety Car activation.
He rejoined in fourth place — thanks to teammate Bottas making room for the Brit to come out in front.
Safety Car#1 was caused by a collision between Romain Grosjean and George Russell on Lap 35 as they fought for position exiting Turn 8. Russell retired after Grosjean struck his Williams, putting the young GP2 Champion and now Williams new hope into the wall.
Safety car #2 saw Sergio Perez’s Racing Point stopping on track with a mechanical issue while Safety Car#3 was triggered by the collision between Daniil Kvyat and Kimi Raikkonen on the run down to Turn 1. Kvyat impacted the Alfa Romeo as Raikkonen turned into the corner.
Despite the “on-off racing / idle-speed” nature of the second half of the race, nothing change the order at the front other than helping Vettel, Leclerc and Verstappen nurse their tyres.
Missing any kind of rally to attack him, Vettel comfortably secured Ferrari’s third win in as many races and the German’s first victory in 392 days.
Lewis Hamilton dropped from second place on the grid to fourth at the finish while Valtteri Bottas retained the fifth place he started in.
Alex Albon finished sixth in the second Red Bull ahead of Lando Norris’ McLaren, Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso, Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault and Antonio Giovinazzi in the Alfa Romeo.
Asked later about the latest pit preference change that led to tension between Leclerc and Vettel – and team policy, Matteo Binotto said that while Ferrari and the teammates “may argue on the swap, I think if it was one-two or two-one, it had been a Ferrari one-two”.
Binotto agreed that while the general policy is to pit the lead driver first, Ferrari saw the slow pace of the early stages of the Singapore race as too slow, and pitting Leclerc first would not have given Leclerc any advantage.
“He was leading the race, said Binatto. He would have rejoined in traffic. It would have been a completely different move.”
Unfortunately, Binatto found out that Leclerc was not informed that Vettel had pitted earlier, although he admitted after the race he thought Ferrari had told its driver that, only for Leclerc to politely point out he was in the dark.
That’s one factor Leclerc had no control over. Be sure that by the next Grand Prix in Sochi, the young Monegasque will have found a way to deserve the treatment of a leader.