Tuesday 15 September 2015

Singapore Preview: Challenging the inevitable

We all know the one about the F1 calendar's gradual shift eastwards in the last decade or so. It hasn't been always loved either. Perhaps with good reason, as plenty of the new Grand Prix venues have failed to really capture the imagination. A recent fans' poll appeared to confirm as much.

The Singapore Grand Prix has rapidly become a fixture
Photo: Octane Photography
But there's one such latterly-established race that can hardly at all be considered a failure. Instead it is a favourite as well as was thought of as part of the furniture in double-quick time. And the race is this weekend; the Singapore Grand Prix around the Marina Bay circuit.

As for why this is, there are several reasons. But an overarching one is that it much about it all just seems very F1. Or rather very what F1 would like to be. It is a glittering, vibrant event in which the visuals rarely fail to look stunning. For several reasons, this one feels a lot like the Monaco for the new millennium.

Just like Monaco, 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. It is glamorous, dripping with money and gives the impression of tearing towards the future. Perhaps most importantly it never fails to fully embrace its F1 visit.

And in another way that it is a lot like Monaco, Singapore is the weekend that everyone wants to be at; that representatives of sponsors and other stakeholders - both current and potential - are brought. Plenty of deals are done here. This goes some way to explaining why, in something near-unheard of, Bernie lately agreed to a reduced hosting fee for this race.

Further when the Marina Bay circuit arrived on the itinerary in 2008 someone somewhere had the bright idea (no pun intended) to make it F1's first night race, taking its cue from other sports which showed that being conducted under floodlights somehow adds to the intensity. And it's hard to cite anywhere more befitting for a race taking place after hours, not only does Singapore boast a fervent night life but the cityscape night time backdrop it provides is stunning.

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

The Singapore event too is all run in crippling humidity that seems somehow trapped within the crowded confines, 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). It represents the year's greatest challenge to mind and body.

Perhaps underlining the grand, and unique, examination that the Singapore race poses only three drivers have won this Grand Prix since it was established: Sebastian Vettel (three times), Fernando Alonso (twice) and Lewis Hamilton (twice).

It also possibly is just as well that we have a popular and distinctive venue before us this time, as F1 at the front at least is right now giving every indication of entering one of its long confirmations of the inevitable. One such inevitability being Lewis Hamilton's third world title, which even if we get a 25 point swing as we did here 12 months ago, except this time against Lewis, he'll remain in a commanding position in the drivers' table. Then there is the sort of form Lewis is in, with him winning every time looking also a lot like an inevitability right now. About as inevitable as the Mercedes team setting the pace.

There seems much that is inevitable about Lewis's form
Photo: Octane Photography
Yet with this - and that Hamilton is one of the few winners here - we shouldn't consider the result this time a foregone conclusion. This is mainly as his team mate and closest rival Nico Rosberg is another who appears to specialise in the Marina Bay track's specific challenges.

Even in his days driving recalcitrant Williams and Mercedes up to and including 2013 Nico's results here read as P2, P11, P5, P7 and P5. And that P11 in 2009 should have been a P2 as he looked well on the way to finish there only to cross the pit lane exit line after a stop, and then having to serve his penalty after the bunching of a safety car period, losing him several places.

While last year he qualified within a hair's breadth of Lewis on pole, before things went very wrong on race day thanks to technical troubles.

And Nico's talk in advance of this Grand Prix has been big. Like a tennis player two sets and a break down he insists he will come out swinging his racket for winners. "Now I approach the final seven races with the attitude that there's nothing to lose" he has said. "It's maximum attack", he added borrowing a phrase from his half-countryman Mika Hakkinen, "and I won't be giving up the fight, no way. Singapore is one of my favourite races, so that's a good place to start. It's so tough on everyone - physically and mentally - and I love that challenge. I was only a few thousandths off pole last year and feeling good for the race until a problem with the steering wheel ended my weekend.

"I know I've got the pace to win there, so I'm hoping for a clean weekend and a chance to unleash this silver beast under the lights."

Nico, perhaps with the freedom of the damned, could well be a threat.

But Lewis has an incredible knack these days of beating him somehow, and almost no matter what else goes on. And Nico's critics might point out that his yearning for a 'clean weekend' betrays that he often seems to require such a weekend in which nothing goes wrong to get one over on his team mate.

Singapore races never are predictable though, mainly as they come with a few complications. One is that the race often is a battle of survival. As outlined the cooked, enclosed intensity of Singapore, and a race stretched over two hours, are something else entirely compared with other rounds on the modern calendar. And not just for the drivers - it's tough on engine cooling, brakes and much else besides.

Track position means a lot at the Singapore race
Photo: Octane Photography
Planning too far ahead on strategy in Singapore can be perilous also. The chances of a safety car based on previous Grands Prix actually are 100% and their appearances can ruin a few best laid plans as well as rescue those seeking to stretch things out.

Singapore brings a strategy conundrum indeed. The Pirelli compounds brought, the supersoft and soft tyres, are of the gumball variety while this track is tough on rubber particularly on the rears with its many acceleration zones. Last year too when the same compounds were used a big pace difference was found between the two compounds. This all ordinarily would further benefit having an extra stop, in the latter case so to minimise your time on the slower tyre.

But at this track too there are big competing considerations which will nudge competitors back to wanting fewer halts. At this track overtaking is as tough as you'll find anywhere Monaco aside and the field spread is large too, and you can add to this that the pit stop loss time is among the biggest there is - close to 30 seconds - thanks to a lengthy pit lane and lower than usual speed limit. The safety car appearances we've mentioned also, in that they can mess with the multi-stoppers, as was the case for Fernando Alonso last year who lost a likely podium place when the safety car emerged at what was for him an inopportune moment. While Felipe Massa, in extremis, got fifth place via nursing his tyres for a whole 31 racing laps and as if to show how marginal such decisions can be his team mate Valtteri Bottas tried the same thing but 'hit the cliff' before the end. On the other hand Sergio Perez and Jean Eric Vergne made up several places and got strong points hauls via late sprints on fresh rubber... As outlined, Singapore strategy is seldom straightforward. Reflecting this the field often splits between two and three stops.

We can add also that rain, despite being frequent in the area including on Grand Prix weekends, has somehow always dodged the actual running here. The effect of rain under the lights, such as on glare and the like, is unknown territory. There's even smog around this time...

Red Bull should go well here
Photo: Octane Photography
Behind the front two things might be a bit different too. Ferrari will likely be the Mercs' closest irritant as usual while Sebastian Vettel's got a good record this year on similarly twisty circuits, winning in Hungary and finishing a close second in Monaco. He's won in Singapore three times as mentioned.

But the biggest departures from recent form will likely be for those with Renault or Honda power units, who didn't care to conceal that the Spa and Monza rounds just passed were things to be got through for them and underlined that they were writing the rounds off by almost all of them racking up engine changes and the penalties that go with them in order to get them in prime position for a run at this Singapore weekend. The crucial difference between there and here is in track layout, especially in the much shorter straights in Singapore compared with the last two events.

Chief among these challengers will be Red Bull which got a double podium here last here (as well as got within a couple of tenths of the Mercs in qualifying) and will be worth watching, especially as power unit aside its cars have looked back on point lately. Then there are the McLaren Hondas which were energy harvesting halfway down the Spa and Monza straights and therefore were passed on occasion as if parked, and whose drivers have been looking at this opportunity to score ever since the not dissimilar sinewy layout of the Hungary round. When they last scored.

Whatever is the case though make sure you're plugged in this weekend for F1's very own light fantastic. However inevitable F1 appears right now, little is inevitable in the Singapore Grand Prix. Little, that is, besides unpredictability.

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