As the Formula 1 circus enters the final stages of the 2014 season, the sport remains generous in distributing surprises and turnarounds. And so, the Singapore Grand Prix has delivered a new championship leader, plus a bunch of thrilling on-track action which left some teams celebrating under the floodlights and others calling it an early night – and one to forget.
The biggest loser of the first race post-Europe was Nico Rosberg; not only was he on a downwards trend in terms of points-scoring and fan popularity since the infamous Belgian Grand Prix – more importantly, he had to fight off mounting pressure from his team-mate Lewis Hamilton, whose newly reinstated confidence proved a serious threat in later practice sessions and qualifying – even if the Brit secured the pole by a mere 0.007sec ahead of the German.
And if that was not enough, the late Sunday event headed off to a horrendous start for Rosberg, when just minutes before taking his grid position a problem with his car emerged that soon proved to be a write off for the race. An electrical issue with the German’s steering wheel meant he could not start the car off the grid by himself, as he had no control over the clutch, let alone being able to use any of the race-winning speed features his Mercedes had stunned the competition with earlier this season.
So after the pack set off on their formation lap, having the swerve around the non-moving Silver Arrow in the second slot, Rosberg was pushed by his team into the pitlane from where – it was hoped – he could still attempt a fight for points. Once the lights went off and Hamilton sprung to the lead, the German was, indeed, able to join the back of the pack – but it soon became obvious that with no fourth or sixth gear, DRS or ERS available, completing 61 laps was going to be a feat in itself – and scoring any points a completely different ball game.
In the 13 laps preceding his pitstop Rosberg managed to only overtake one car – Max Chilton’s Marussia. When he did approach the garage, in a truly tortoise pace, his engineers frantically tried to make a miracle happen – but since he wasn’t even able to reengage the first gear, the German waved the team off to call it a day. As he stood by his car moments later, incredulous, he was approached by Mercedes director Toto Wolff, to hear an apology.
“It looks like a broken loom in the steering column, which was within the duty cycle and not towards the end of its life cycle,” Wolff told Autosport after the race.
“It just shut the whole thing down.”
Rosberg’s retirement paved the way for his team-mate taking over the leader’s cap in the drivers’ standings, as Hamilton had little trouble maintaining his front-runner position throughout the evening – but it wasn’t cruising either.
The Brit admitted after his successful qualifying session he was positively surprised by the emergence of other teams as realistic competitors in Singapore. In fact, the top six qualifying times were only 0.3sec apart – and were struck not only by dominating Mercedes engines, but also Renault and Ferrari.
But Hamilton had little to worry about that evening with his biggest rival out of the race – that is, until the safety car was called in on lap 31 following contact between Sergio Perez and Adrian Sutil. The Mexican ended up running over his own front wing which had fallen off his Force India following the contact, leaving a considerable amount of debris on track which took seven long laps to clear off. That erased the advantage Hamilton had racked up over second-placed Sebastian Vettel and his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who benefitted from Fernando Alonso’s safety car period pit stop to move ahead of the Spaniard. The Aussie was demoted from his qualifying spot on lap one, when the Ferrari ran wide and across the run-off on Turn 1 to emerge second, but then only gave up one space for Vettel, leaving Ricciardo having to fight for his original grid spot.
Sure enough, however, despite increased competition from the rest of the paddock, Mercedes remained the most powerful outfit on the track. Once the safety car made its way back into the pits, Hamilton shot out extending the gap to Vettel to more than 3sec on just that first lap. From then on it was a race against time and tyre degradation for the Brit, as his team – and certainly his rivals – calculated the best time for his mandatory stop to change to soft tyres, in order to still emerge ahead of the pack. It was a mental battle for Hamilton, who desperately wanted to avoid a blow-out, but who was at the same time told to hold off until the very last moment. The wait had paid off, as when the Brit did come in for his tyre change on lap 52 he had only been overtaken by Vettel, who did not stand a chance to fight the new championship leader off on his own worn rubber. The Brit finished with a 13.5sec advantage.
“It was great to come here after winning in Monza and start the final leg of the season with such a competitive car,” Hamilton said after the race.
“It would have been a really hardcore race if Nico had been at the front, as we clearly had the pace.”
“There was no point fighting Lewis at the end, he was on fresh tyres and I had to manage mine to the end as they were pretty old by then; that was the focus,” Vettel said.
“It was nice to get the cold champagne on the podium.”
The second place finish was the German’s best result this year – a stark contrast to the four years prior, when he scooped his history-making quartet of titles. In 2014 he has been regularly outperformed by his new team-mate Ricciardo – but not in Singapore, as the Aussie suffered from battery problems which impaired his competitiveness on track that evening – but he still managed third.
“We were really close to the Mercedes in qualifying and we expected the race pace to be a bit faster today to be honest,” Ricciardo said after the race.
“We weren’t quick enough in the first stint and we had a few other issues going on, with brakes and some power issues that were coming and going, but in terms of points we still got a good handful to take away from here.”
Ferrari also seemed to continue the momentum throughout the weekend and into the race, with Alonso’s 4. place finish a bitter-sweet boost to the team following a disastrous performance a fortnight earlier in Monza. But while the Spaniard was making the most of his own (if not his car’s) competitive edge, his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was once more struck by bad luck with software issues affecting his qualifying and then tyre degradation impairing his race. The team did not manage to recover the third position in the constructors’ championship, which they lost to Williams in Italy, even though the Grove squad only benefitted from one point scorer in Singapore with Felipe Massa’s 5. finish.
Right behind him across the line was the revelation of the evening: Jean-Eric Vergne. The Toro Rosso driver struggled throughout the race, when he was handed two five-second penalties: first one for exceeding track limits when passing Raikkonen early in the race when the Finn emerged from the pits, and later for the same manoeuvre against Lotus’ Pastor Maldonado. Regardless, the Frenchman pushed in the final stages of the race to claim his best result this season, finishing in 6.
Another surprise, considering the circumstances, came in the form of Sergio Perez who – despite the safety-car-causing damage to his car – made the most of the fresher set of tyres his forced pit stop had granted him to overtake three cars on the last two laps, to cross the finish line behind Vergne. That, as well as the 9. place finish for his team-mate Nico Hulkenberg has added crucial points for the outfit, who are now placed behind Ferrari in the constructors’ championship.
On the other hand it was a bleak evening for the team below in the standings; Kevin Magnussen managed to scoop just one point in the event after a draining struggle with Singaporean weather and the overheating of his McLaren – including his water bottle which left him highly dehydrated at the end of the race; while Jenson Button failed to cross the finish line at all for the first time in 36 races as his car was hit by a sudden loss of power on lap 54.
The Brit joined a parade-lap retiree Kamui Kobayashi, whose Caterham experienced a loss of power and a break failure, as well as two Sauber drivers: Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil. None of this group has their future in the sport set in stone, and while Button looks the strongest of the lot, questions had been raised that week whether the likes of Marussia, Caterham and Sauber would appear at all on the 2015 grid – which is yet another reason to rue their DNFs (did not finish).
With five more races to go it is still all to play for for the two realistic contenders for this year’s title, as the win had moved Hamilton ahead of Rosberg, but only by mere three points. But while the Brit might be joining the post-race party life in Singapore, having taken one step closer to his dream second world title, his team-mate will have to fight off fears that his nightmare bad-luck-season has only just begun.