Tuesday 17 September 2013

Singapore Preview: F1's light fantastic

I don't know about you, but whenever I'm reminded that Singapore's debut as an F1 venue was as recent as 2008 it always seems a little bit wrong to me. It demonstrates just how rapidly and resolutely the glittering event has got its feet under the F1 table. Already it is a favourite; already it seems a fixture; already a calendar without this particular stop off on it would strike as a severely depleted one.

The Singapore event is a stunning one
Credit: chensiyuan / CC
Singapore is a city state that is a quintessential F1 host, to the point that you wonder at quiet moments quite why a Grand Prix wasn't established here decades ago. Glamorous, vibrant and dripping with money, a lot like Monaco its relationship with F1 has been rather like a hand-in-glove. And the city responds in kind, never failing to fully embrace the event. The party spirit is absolutely entered into and the grandstands usually are packed.

Further, when the Marina Bay circuit arrived on the sport's itinerary someone somewhere had the bright idea to make it F1's first night race, taking its cue from other sports which showed that being conducted under floodlights somehow ratchets up the intensity. And it's hard to cite anywhere as more befitting of such an event: not only does Singapore boast a fervent night life but the cityscape nighttime backdrop to proceedings is stunning; as well as this the cars never fail to look beautiful under the lights. This all means - in another parallel with Monaco - that the Singapore F1 race is visually brilliant; in a Grand Prix weekend there wherever you direct your gaze is something worth looking at, and it thus attracts many-a wide angle camera lens. Not for nothing the event already is iconic.

And in another way that it is a lot like Monaco, Singapore is the event that everyone wants to be at, that representatives of sponsors and other stakeholders - both current and potential - are brought. Plenty of deals are done over the Singapore weekend. For several reasons, the venue feels a lot like the Monaco for the new millennium.

In a further nod to the principality, the circuit is a proper downtown street track, almost a throwback, all bumps, city landmarks, with nearby barriers lining the snaking, tunnel-like layout offering little room for error. The acrobatic test with almost constant braking and turning means that the driver has scant opportunity for rest.

Adding yet further to the demands is that it's all run in crippling humidity and as if to top it all off the race nudges, and often goes over, the two-hour limit, in an age wherein no other race gets close (Lewis Hamilton once likened a race here to working out in a sauna for two hours). As may be befitting, the Singapore Grand Prix is almost standalone among today's F1 circuits in what it lays before the competitors - it represents the year's greatest challenge to mind and body.

Sebastian Vettel has a good record
at Singapore, and he looks
like the favourite again
Credit: Nicolas Lannuzel / CC
F1's hasty shift to new-fangled venues, mainly eastwards, hasn't always been popular or successful. Singapore very much has.

Perhaps underlining the grand, and unique, examination that the Singapore race poses, only three drivers have won the Grand Prix here in its short history: Fernando Alonso (twice), Sebastian Vettel (twice) and Lewis Hamilton (once). Indeed, to a large extent the three have dominated races here, and it is hard to think of many instances of others even contending for victory. And one can see why, as the requirements to direct a car precisely while it dances on its very tip-toes suits each of them just fine.

Of the three, as we're used to saying Vettel looks to be the one to beat this weekend. Recent form might not mean a great deal, as we come from the two lowest downforce tracks of the year to just about the highest. But still, in Seb's case he's just bagged two wins at tracks that were supposed to trip him up and in theory at least he should be stronger still here. Rear downforce and traction, particularly via its untouchable skills in exhaust blowing of the diffuser (and Vettel being especially adept at getting the best out of it), are the Red Bull trump cards, and the RB9 will have plenty of opportunities to put them to maximum effect at this circuit.

Seb's closest challenger could well be Lewis Hamilton. Way back in Spa he predicted that the Mercedes would be right back at the sharp end around the twists of the Singapore track, and indeed at the last acrobatic high downforce circuit (Hungary) Lewis ran away. Furthermore on these sorts of tracks Lewis has had pole position pretty much to himself in recent times, and possibly only around Monaco and Hungary does pole mean more than at Singapore.

As for Alonso and Ferrari things seem a bit more of a mystery. The combination's form in the last two rounds were a bit better than it had been, and Alonso has spoken about the team rediscovering its confidence in terms of development and upgrades. However, as doomsayers have been keen to point out both of those results have been at peculiar low downforce tracks, and Ferrari has tended to give that spec a bit more focus than its rivals tend to.

This weekend all has something of a last chance saloon about it, for Alonso as for many others. Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali has named Singapore as the point at which the team will make its big decision as to whether to call off the fight for this season with the big 2014 tech changes in mind, or to keep the development tap on full flow for the remainder of the year. One imagines many other teams are in a similar position, and furthermore Singapore has for a while been the scene of the season's last big development stride up and down the pit lane. Indeed, not coincidentally, it was the Singapore race in which last year's championship battle pivoted, and Vettel started his late-year run wherein he snatched the title against expectations. It doesn't seem melodramatic to say that this weekend probably only a win - or else something disastrous befalling Vettel - will do for the Scuderia.

Nico Rosberg - seen here in a Williams in 2009 -
has always gone well at Singapore
Credit: Sam Badeo / CC
As for the rest, Nico Rosberg is another who appears to specialise in the Marina Bay track's challenges. His five results here - achieved in a range of recalcitrant Williams and Mercedes - read as P2, P11, P5, P7 and P5. And that P11 in 2009 could very easily have been a P2, when he looked well on the way to finish there at the very least only to cross the pitlane exit line after a stop, and then having to serve his penalty after the bunching of a safety car period, losing him several places. Finally with a handy set of wheels at Singapore we can anticipate Rosberg's weekend with some relish. He could also do with beating Lewis for the first time in a while.

Kimi Raikkonen however is someone who's struggled for results at the Marina Bay track. In 2008 he ended the race in the wall, in 2009 he finished out of the points, while last year he finished in a fairly distant sixth (benefiting from a 'Romain, Kimi is faster than you' order along the way). Recent results have probably, realistically, put the title out of his reach and, with a Ferrari contract in his pocket for 2014, how he responds and how the Lotus team responds to him will no doubt be of some interest.

And another unique challenge at Singapore is strategy, particularly with there so far being at least one safety car period per visit (and often more than one). Flexibility is therefore key. Last year two-stoppers were the norm, though some such as Alonso were spared what would likely have been a nervy finish on old tyres by extended safety car periods. If the cards don't fall that way this year we may indeed get an unpredictable finish, though as (understandably) is Pirelli's way these days the compounds are more conservative than they were at this venue last year, with the supersoft and medium brought instead of the supersoft and soft in 2012. But this may create more headaches, as last year there was a large difference in pace between the two compounds that were only one apart - some 1.6 seconds per lap for some - so two apart could create even more problems. Those on the pitwall will earn their money.

Whatever is the case, make sure you're plugged in this weekend for F1's very own light fantastic.

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