Sunday 20 September 2015

Singapore GP Report: The old ones are always the best

It was like a march of inevitability. One stretched over two hours. One too that had plenty kicking off around it but that even so never began to interrupt its stride. From the very off it was near-impossible to muster up the slightest doubt over who was ultimately to prevail in today's Singapore Grand Prix. Yes, indeed, it was Sebastian Vettel in his Ferrari.

Sebastian Vettel's triumph never seemed in doubt
Photo: Octane Photography
If yesterday was just like old times for imperious Seb, so was today. As Ferrari's technical head James Allison noted, once Seb led into the first turn "it was all ours to throw away".

After a single tour he was three seconds up the road, 4.3 seconds after two, 4.9 after three. The theme of the day was set as the gap hovered around that mark. Seb in that time-honoured way of his had established a lead right from the off as if someone had flicked a switch, and then sought to hold it.

Sure enough by the end of this longest of F1 races later that broadly still was the way of it; Seb having in between times circulated like a never-ending clockwork toy, responding to whatever threat materialised behind. "He opened up a gap every time that he needed to, so that he could stay on top of the race" Allison added.

It came with the nagging suspicion that we'd seen all this before. And that's because we had. Plenty.

The Singapore race even had a fair dose of its habitual madness. There were two safety car appearances, the second even - with accompanying echoes of Silverstone in 2003 and Hockenheim in 2000 - was brought about by some guy wandering on the track. Plenty had gearbox problems, which some thought could be a return of the area's underground Metro playing havoc with the cars' electrics, as happened to Mark Webber in 2008. Yet the top three from the grid and first turn remained unaltered throughout, pressing on as it all went off elsewhere.

Vettel leading off the line was vital
Photo: Octane Photography
Daniel Ricciardo pedalled hard in Seb's wake in second place and never appeared to give up, setting fastest laps even late on. But Seb today always had an outer edge of sheer pace that Ricciardo could never match, and on occasion he unleashed it with devastating effect. Mid-race indeed when it for once had appeared a tight battle Seb established a four second lead almost in the blink of an eye.

Even over and above Vettel's famous modus operandi this was his win number four at this venue, and indeed he's only one of three drivers to win here and also can now claim to exactly half of the available triumphs at the Marina Bay track. No wonder it felt familiar. And that there was no doubt around.

His old Red Bull boss Christian Horner knew better than most what Seb's ways are: "He's always been fantastic at this track and this was classic Seb today..." he noted.

And underlining this point it was in fact Vettel that went past Ayrton Senna's mark of 41 wins, on a weekend when much more anticipation had been of Lewis Hamilton equalling it.

There was only the briefest of moments when Seb looked under threat. Red Bull's tyre longevity was thought to be slightly the better than Ferrari's and indeed towards the end of the first stint Ricciardo crept up on Vettel conspicuously, only for the first safety car appearance when both were forced to pit put the end to that fun. Seb then seemed a bit circumspect for a while in the second stint as he nursed his rubber, apparently learning from stint one, though thanks to another safety car period in which again nearly all pitted we didn't get to see if the same thing as before would happen. After that everyone got home on the softs without problem. The tiny sliver of light for the rest was plunged into darkness.

A lot was familiar about Vettel's win
Photo: Octane Photography
"You drive a bit into the unknown" said Seb afterwards, "so I was trying to put a gap. I was surprised by the opening laps to put five seconds straight away. Then eased off; probably was pushing a bit hard at the beginning, which allowed Daniel to just be that two, three, four tenths quicker at the end [of the stint]. Obviously I had a bit of margin left but the safety car answered all the questions about the first stop.

"I think Daniel had a very good race" Seb went on, "looking after his tyres very well, which made it a bit tactical towards the end with the stints. Second stint I was dictating the pace. Obviously around here it's not so easy to overtake, so I was using that. And from then, at some point, chipping away, trying to control the gap. Fortunately that worked."

Quite. Horner wasn't entirely convinced however. "The safety cars didn't help us today because we were definitely stronger at the end of the stints, and the safety cars just neutralised it" he said.

"Without the safety cars, I'm not saying we could have beaten them but we'd have definitely given them a harder time".

His lead driver of today concurred. "Thanks to the guy on the track - appreciate it" Ricciardo added ironically. "I was tempted to swerve - clip him! Anyway, that was it."

Kimi Raikkonen followed the pair home in third. He never was on Seb's pace this weekend but was safe enough in bringing the thing to the flag.

Daniel Ricciardo took a very worthy second place
Photo: Octane Photography
And this meant that for Ferrari it was their first double podium appearance since Spain in 2013 and moreover their most impressive weekend of that time, including Malaysia this year where its preponderance owed much to gentle tyre handling rather than unquestionable pace. And it's worth reflecting that in pre-season its team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said winning more than twice this season would be an achievement akin to winning the title. There were a few sniggers in response to that at the time but no one is similarly sneering now. It's all homage not only to Seb but also to the Ferrari engine department (and if you think they were bound to make that particular deficit up this season just talk to someone at Renault) as well as to James Allison et al on the chassis front.

As for the Mercedes? Their curious lack of pace continued today and they were never a factor. Mostly they followed the leading Ferraris and Red Bulls at a respectful distance, though they did claim a place through fortune when Daniil Kvyat lost out massively when the Virtual Safety Car was deployed just after he'd made a stop, allowing others to pit when all on track were forcibly slowed.

The silver cars also tried a contrary strategy when taking on the slower soft tyres at their first halts. But as if to prove that it never rains but it pours Hamilton not long after had to drop out with a technical problem, that his team later described as "a loss of boost pressure caused by the failure of a clamp between the intercooler and plenum". This means two mechanical failures in two races for Merc after not having any prior to that in 2015. Related to the new engine, one way or another? Nico Rosberg of course had to run a long-in-the-tooth unit in Monza, which failed, after problems with his own new unit earlier that weekend.

The Mercedes never were a factor
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis thought without the failure he was looking good for a win and his engineer agreed. Almost no one else did though. Granted he looked quicker than Rosberg throughout and his strategy in theory would have been allowed him to attack later on, but he rarely looked like he had the pace to be a threat to those upfront even with this. And a subsequent safety car appearance made the point moot as it did for his team mate trying the same thing given it pushed almost everyone onto the same strategy, stretching out a stint on soft tyres to the end. The team's competitiveness, or lack of it, was underlined by Nico being 25 seconds behind the winner at the end, even with two safety car periods. It was left to Ricciardo to sum up the Brackley discomfort. "OK, I think Rosberg was fourth but we never really saw them all race in the mirrors or in qualifying".

Lewis though had the fortune for his misfortune to strike on a weekend wherein he stood to lose least to his team mate at least. Rosberg could only muster 12 points for fourth pace and thus Hamilton's title lead over him stands still mighty at 41 points, and at 49 to Vettel. He's still in the box seat.

As ever in Singapore there were impressive feats of fortitude elsewhere. Valtteri Bottas came home fifth despite persistent gearbox problems, ahead of the unlucky Kvyat. Sergio Perez continued his fine recent form with seventh, while we had a diverting Toro Rosso soap opera next up. Max Verstappen led them home in eighth - an amazing drive given he lost a lap after problems getting off the line - but late on he was told to let his team mate Carlos Sainz through, and responded to the call with a firm "no" which he followed up in kind with his actions too. It seems that Max was above board though, as it was one of those situations where the team wanted to give Sainz a crack at Perez ahead on the off-chance that he could pass, but Sainz it seemed didn't have the pace in any case. A few were impressed - at least grudgingly - with Max's self-assertion, while he revealed later that such a stance was on the rather rumbustious advice of his father...

Max Verstappen provided interest, and not just
because of his excellent drive
Photo: Octane Photography
On the bigger picture there of course is excited chatter around as to whether this strange weekend with Mercedes bit part players is a one-off or actually an amazing new way of things. Ferrari has improved, on the engine clearly as seen in Monza (though that wouldn't have helped them much here) as well as it seems on the chassis (there is chatter that it brought some pieces here more minded of 2016 but found they worked so well that they left them on the car). Ferrari Chairman Sergio Marchionne insisted indeed that "this race is not just a one-off but a huge step forward on our road back to staying at the top".

But still it is impossible to believe that we witnessed the best of Merc this time. With this the Singapore track and its surface are peculiar in many ways, as well as is not the best place for the W06 to stretch its legs - containing no almost long straights or fast turns plus its many braking zones mean its efficient energy recovery isn't a discriminator. It also wasn't the first time that this car has struggled to get the super soft tyres operating in their small performance window.

Suzuka next week, by contrast all long fast turns on harder tyres, will be something else entirely and will answer a lot of these questions. Yet the consensus remains that this one was in indeed a one-off. Martin Brundle, not for the first time, got closer than most when he opined "I think we've seen Ferrari very on form and Mercedes very off form this weekend".

Seb agreed in large part too, saying of Mercedes that "I guess they should be back in Suzuka". But even so he couldn't resist one of his famous insouciant quips. "If they're not, in all honesty we don't mind."

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