Friday, 23 September 2011

Singapore Preview: F1's light fantastic

It seems astonishing to think that the Marina Bay circuit at Singapore made its F1 debut just three years ago. Already it is impossible to think of an F1 year without it, and one of the very most keenly anticipated events of the year.

Singapore's night race, one of the most
keenly anticipated of the year
Credit: chensiyuan / CC
Of all of the 'new' venues of F1's recent shiftwards east Marina Bay is the most successful by a distance. Singapore seems a city made to hold an F1 race: vibrant and glamorous, with large, enthusiastic crowds guaranteed year on year. It has the distinction of being F1's first (and, so far, only entirely) night race, the cars never fail to look beautiful under the lights, and are backdropped by Singapore's evocative nightscape. What's more, Singapore has proved to be possibly F1's most challenging race. It lasts just shy of two hours, is run in hot humid conditions invariably, and the acrobatic track doesn't provide much of a breather for pilots. Sunday's race will likely have each driver enduring upwards of 4,300 gear changes - that's almost double the number at Spa, unforgiving walls are always close and the bumps and kerbs vicious.

Briefly, the kerbs were the big star of today's practice. Many of them had worked loose, some were repaired and many removed altogether subsequently, meaning the track evolved in a very real sense throughout the day. The first session was heavily disrupted and indeed was delayed and truncated by half an hour as this repair work was carried out. It was all a bit reminiscent of the F1 street tracks such as Detroit in the 1980s when the F1 circus would turn up to find the track not finished. It will have caused red faces among the event's organisers, whose record has been unblemished up until this point.

Can Vettel clinch the title this weekend?
Credit: Anthony Porcino / CC
One focus for the weekend is whether Sebastian Vettel can wrap up his 2011 title here. In reality, it's not much of a story as the championship is his by rights, and has been for a while. But he comes here beaming like a guy who positively knows the championship is in his manbag, and once again he looks like the man to beat this weekend on the evidence of Friday running. He was fastest, reasonably comfortably, in the second practice session and also looks good on the longer runs, with comparable tyre degradation to his rivals. And the Bulls usually run a bit more fuel than their rivals on a Friday, so his gap ahead of the rest may be even bigger than the stopwatch is suggesting.

All this shouldn't be a surprise, Vettel has been the fastest just about everywhere this year, and he was the quickest here last season as well, only being denied a win after the slightest fumble in qualifying allowed Fernando Alonso to snatch pole, an advantage Seb was never able to usurp on race day. And, despite the mathematics, it's almost impossible to imagine Seb do anything other than go for a win this weekend.

Just like last year, it looks like Alonso will be Seb's closest challenger tomorrow and Sunday. He was a couple of tenths shy of Seb in final practice today, and on the longer runs he may be even closer than this. The Ferrari's relative struggles in the past couple of races are apparently peculiar to low downforce tracks, and they hope they'll return to their good form from before that, and they don't have any nasty medium tyres to worry about. Alonso's record at Singapore is a very good one: two wins and a third place in three meetings (yes, yes, I know what happened in 2008, but he was quick that year as well despite everything else that happened), the layout suits his aggressive, all-action style.

Alonso may be Vettel's closest challenger
Twelve months ago Nando got close enough to force Seb to drop the ball in qualifying, and he'll be hoping for something similar this year. But the flip side is that mistakes aren't nearly as prominent in Seb's repertoire this season, and even he does sneak ahead at any point Seb will have many more opportunities to take the place back than was on offer a year ago.

And then there's Ferrari's elephant in the room, getting performance out of the harder tyres. As mentioned, that the harder tyre is the soft will help them, but tyre strategy flexibility on Sunday is going to be limited, given the long pitlane and frequency of safety cars here will mean that most competitors will try to keep stops to a minimum. Indeed, those who don't run in the final qualifying session will possibly try a one-stopper (it'll also mean getting stuck behind slower cars will be a consideration - passing won't be easy here, even with DRS). Still, rear tyres will have to carefully managed in the race, which will likely help the Scuderia.

McLaren may be slightly shy of the pace, and their car looked a bit twitchy in today's running (indeed, Jenson had to abandon second practice early after straightlining a corner and getting stuck, unable to find reserve). Still, Lewis is another who tends to go well around here, and he wasn't able to max out his super soft tyre run in second practice, and if he had he probably also would have been right up there.

But it looks like this Singapore Grand Prix, just like last year, will be the Seb and Nando show (here's some lap time number crunching from last year's race).

Kimi Raikkonen, last seen here in 2009, was the talk
of the paddock in Singapore
Credit: Sam Badeo / CC
Another big story from Singapore is the Kimi Raikkonen to Williams for 2012 suggestion. In a matter of days it's firmed up from being fanciful and far-fetched to being reported as close to a racing certainty to happen. It's a move that the more I think about it the more I think it makes sense. While Kimi's perceived strengths and weaknesses are well-documented (in short, incredible talent but wavering motivation and commitment), from Williams' point of view surely Kimi is worth the risk. With all due respect to the other drivers in the frame for the seat they're a known, and dare I say a limited, quantity and even a de-motivated Kimi will be about as good as them, and a motivated Kimi far better? And that's without mentioning the support, attention and signalling of intent (and by extension, attraction of sponsors) that a Kimi signing will bring. Seemingly Kimi, having sampled every form of motorsport the world has to offer in the past couple of seasons virtually, wants to return to F1, and is likely intelligent enough to realise he's not going to leap back into a top team immediately. In any case there are plenty of good seats open in 2013 if he impresses.

So let's hope next year witnesses the return of the Kimster. F1 will be all the better for it.

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