Sunday 17 September 2017

Singapore GP Report - Not drowning but waving

Motorsport, as we are often given cause to reflect, is not like other sports. Just like in those, we predict with confidence. But unlike in most of those, things can and do look unrecognisable in a blink. Things like a rain shower. A standing start. An accident.

Lewis Hamilton was an unlikely winner
Photo: Octane Photography
That's what we got in Singapore. Sebastian Vettel looked serene on pole. Granted the Red Bulls would be strong in the race, but from the championship angle his rival Lewis Hamilton was flailing down in fifth. Surely he would at least re-take his long-held drivers' title table lead. It was a matter of how far by.

It had rained earlier on race day, but it appeared it would matter not. But then more arrived around 10 minutes before the start, meaning for the first time ever we had wet night time running under floodlights in F1.

Rain is frequent in Singapore; perhaps the most remarkable thing was it had never hit running here before in ten visits. Not, that anyone could remember, so much as a practice session or support race. Until today.

And it kicked off early. From the standing start Seb moved across the track to cover his place, but both second place starter Max Verstappen and fast starting Kimi Raikkonen were there. Max was caught in a Ferrari sandwich, all collided and the Dutchman and Kimi barrelled out.

They collected Fernando Alonso also, who'd performed a prodigy to get up to a net second. A victim of his own skills. He said later that "the podium was guaranteed or maybe we would be even fighting for victory."

The race, and title perhaps, pivoted
on a crash in the run to turn one
Photo: Octane Photography
And within seconds Seb was out too, spinning into the wall, probably a result of his damage.

It robbed the race of much of its intrigue, not only from both Ferraris but the trump cards of Verstappen (yet another early exit for him) and, eventually after a little soldiering on, Alonso.

While in the same blink, the self-same flailing Lewis Hamilton was in the lead. Not drowning but waving. Not only suddenly was the day unrecognisable, so was the title picture. Lewis from desperately limiting damage was set for the maximum 25 point gain.

His engineer Pete Bonnington quickly spelled it out. It's now about bringing it home. Lewis said he knew.

"Not ideal is it?," said Seb later, appropriately.

What 'fault' there was, was Seb's. Though equally it all seemed rather a racing incident. Seb's 'move to cover' is, sadly, standard for the poleman these days (Lewis did something like it at Monza). But perhaps given the conditions and title considerations he could have been more circumspect.

Verstappen thought so. "Mainly Sebastian," he said when asked to apportion blame. "He started squeezing me, maybe he didn't see Kimi on the left.

Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen walk
away from their battered machines
Photo: Octane Photography
"That's not an excuse - if you're fighting for the world championship, you shouldn't take those risks to squeeze someone that much.

"What does he expect? It was not very clever. I don't think it was a racing incident."

Both Ferrari pilots were coy meanwhile, which told its own tale.

"I don't know, I didn't see that much," Vettel said. "That's how this business is, and we'll move on. It doesn't change much."

"I don't think I could have done anything to change the end result apart from doing a bad start and not being there," Kimi added.

Lewis did more than bring the thing home however. He showed all his flair in these most challenging of sceanrios and quickly scampered away from Daniel Ricciardo - no wet weather slouch he. This included after a mid-race safety car (brought about by Daniil Kvyat binning it) wherein the Australian had smartly changed to fresh intermediates. Despite 11 laps more age in his rubber Lewis stretched 4.5 seconds clear after 10 laps of subsequent green flag running.

On older tyres and not in the quickest car this weekend. It seemed mainly about Lewis. Underlining as much, the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was nowhere near - 20 seconds off him after 12 laps of green.

Fernando Alonso also was collected in the carnage
Photo: Octane Photography
Even though there was no more rain the humidity, lack of sunlight and little air getting through meant the track in fact dried slowly.

But come half (nominal) distance it was good for slicks - all took them on and that was that. Lewis, possibly not believing his fortune today, was about the last to change, but still emerged with an 11 second advantage.

Ricciardo nibbled at it occasionally, but somehow the prodigious Red Bull pace of practice and qualifying never manifested even with the track dry. He apparently had a gearbox oil pressure issue to nurse, though his boss Christian Horner stopped short of claiming this denied victory. Ricciardo followed Lewis home, 4.5 seconds adrift. An even more adrift Bottas completed the podium.

"Obviously I was very fortunate with the Ferraris at the beginning" said an elated Lewis, "couldn't be happier.

"I capitalised on the incident, who would have known that would happen?"

But he insisted it wasn't all about the early smash. "I needed it to rain and as soon as it rained I knew where I was going to finish," he added. "I knew I had the pace when it rains, unfortunately we just didn't have the car in the dry." Someone worked out that's eight wet F1 race wins on the trot for him.

"Motor racing!," exclaimed his boss Toto Wolff increduously. "This morning we were waking up with a bad feeling talking about damage limitation, and here we are 24 hours later with a massive step forward in the championship."

Hamilton's win gives the championship
a very different complexion
Photo: Octane Photography
Carlos Sainz as he always seems to on such days showed up well and finished fourth, his best ever F1 result, while the similarly-reputed Sergio Perez got fifth. They provided some entertainment with spirited dicing at mid-distance.

Nico Hulkenberg should have been fourth, but under the later safety car had to take on more oil due to a leak. This first dropped him to tenth and stopped him definitively later. He also gets an unwanted record for the most Grand Prix starts without a podium. In a doleful coup de grace, he ran in the top three early on today...

His Renault team mate Jolyon Palmer - despite a difficult weekend off the track - put in a spirited run and with some overdue fortune finished sixth. He even threw in an opportunistic pass of Bottas. The other McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne also stayed out of trouble to get seventh. In both cases it was their best ever F1 finish as well.

Lance Stroll, Romain Grosjean and Esteban Ocon completed the scorers. Only 12 made it home and one of those - Pascal Wehrlein - was two laps down.

But if much of this race's drama was extracted after the first few seconds, it still feels pivotal. Lewis's title lead now is 28, Mercedes's weakest track is done and after months of to and fro suddenly it's hard to see anyone else taking this year's title. Short of something like today happening in reverse.

Though given what we said at the outset, we shouldn't rule that one out.

No comments:

Post a Comment