Monday, 10 September 2018

Singapore Preview: Risk and reward

F1 in 2018 keeps changing. F1 in 2018 keeps staying the same.

Monza changed the season's picture - and conformed to it
Photo: Octane Photography
What we got in the last round at Monza was nothing like what we expected. But in its shift it conformed with the lingering theme of the year so far - that Ferrari has the quickest car in most circumstances but one way or another isn't making good on it. And Mercedes is taking advantage. After the Italian race Lewis Hamilton's points lead, against all expectations, stretched to 30. We're reaching the point that Ferrari can't afford more slip-ups.

Yet the Scuderia can go into this one in Singapore with some light breaking through its recently accumulated gloom, and not just due to its inherent pace advantage mentioned. Singapore moreover is a great place for it to get some of its lost points back on Merc pronto.

This has been Mercedes's bogey venue in recent times. Traditionally its strengths are in the fast and flowing rather than the tight and torturous, yet even over and above this general point sometimes its inability to extract pace at the peculiar Singapore circuit has been a conspicuous mystery (most quintessentially in the 2015 visit). It's easy to forget given what happened next, but even last year Mercedes qualified only fifth and sixth with a best time seven tenths off the pole. Adding to Ferrari's hope, Sebastian Vettel is something of a local specialist and has won here four times (though Hamilton isn't far off that total, having won here on three occasions).

"Singapore has features that we've struggled with in the past," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted. "The short straights, the slow, tight corners and the bumpy surface all make the Marina Bay street circuit one of the trickiest tracks of the season for us. On paper, the track should favour the Ferraris."

The Ferraris collided notoriously at the start last year
Photo: Octane Photography
So Ferrari should win in Singapore. But it should have won at Monza - and in plenty of other places this year that it hasn't won in. And the Italian round just passed not for the first time exposed its weaknesses in the team operation, Vettel's tendency to err in moments of extremity as well as in his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen's willingness to help out.

This coming weekend too will be full of reminders of its last visit wherein traumatically Ferrari commenced its clumsy ways. You could make the case that it's never since entirely shaken them.

And if you're looking for a weekend in which nothing comes along to trip you up, Singapore is likely - Monaco aside - the last place you'd choose. For Ferrari this will be an in extremis case of risk and reward.

The Monaco comparisons this round elicits aren't just based on glamour and money. Like the principality this is a proper downtown street track - all bumps, nearby walls to hit and an acrobatic test with almost constant braking and turning.

And in Singapore you can add the 30C heat and more to the point the 70% humidity that seems trapped within the confines. The race nudges, and sometimes goes over, the two-hour limit in an age wherein no other race gets close (unlike Monaco the usual F1 race length isn't reduced here). As noted the driver has scant opportunity for rest. Hamilton once likened a race here to working out in a sauna for two hours. This one is the year's greatest challenge to mind and body.

Red Bull often goes well in Singapore
Photo: Octane Photography
And what of Red Bull? It has for years had this as its second best track after Monaco and last year indeed it was on top until the last of qualifying; even so Max Verstappen started on the front row. The question of whither Red Bull is important too as if it can slot itself between the Ferraris and Mercedes this will have a major impact on the championship picture.

However the noises coming from Verstappen recently suggest that while the Bulls expect to be a bit closer to the front this time it doesn't quite feel it'll get among the haughty front two teams. More generally it has been a while since the Red Bulls really got among them indeed, including not doing so at the twisty Hungaroring that should have suited it (though, unlike Singapore, Red Bull doesn't actually have that great a record in Hungary). Still it all at least should mean a Mercedes 2015-style drop off will be punished.

As for the rest, another thing Singapore shares with Monaco is that it gives more of an opportunity than usual for the driver to make a difference, and aptly Fernando Alonso has a good record here. Even in recalcitrant McLarens he's tended to show up well at this track and could have finished on the podium last year had he not been wiped out in the first turn contretemps. Carlos Sainz also goes well here and finished fourth last year as well as qualified sixth the year before.

Singapore strategy has an appropriately treacherous quality. As with Monaco track evolution throughout the weekend is sharp which can confuse early readings of set-up and tyre behaviour. Races here often are multi-stoppers as the twisty layout strains the rubber though last year Hamilton won with a single halt. The safety car has a 100% record of appearing here too and stops may therefore be reactive to this. Also the pitstop loss time is among the biggest there is - close to 30 seconds - thanks to a lengthy pitlane and a lower than usual speed limit.

Fernando Alonso will be worth watching
Photo: Octane Photography
Further confusing matters this year the new hyper-soft tyre is brought which is in effect two steps softer than the softest compound last year. Plus, unlike the previous two rounds where the hyper-soft was used, there is a 'step' between compounds as the super-soft is missed - this indeed is the first time the soft/ultra-soft/hyper-soft combination has been picked.

In another Monaco echo overtaking at this circuit is as tough as you'll find anywhere (Monaco itself aside) and the field spread is large too.

We can also add the weather. Rain is frequent in the area and finally hit the running, and in the race, last year. And of course it quickly made matters unrecognisable.

Whatever is the case though make sure you're plugged in this weekend for F1's spectacular after hours show under the lights. Little is inevitable in the Singapore Grand Prix. Little, that is, besides unpredictability.

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