Singapore Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton reaffirms his class, Ferrari's flawed tyre strategy and other talking points

The 2018 Singapore Grand Prix that Lewis Hamilton won might not go down as a classic motor-race, but it offered several talking points

Mithila Mehta and Kunal Shah September 17, 2018 09:07:11 IST
Singapore Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton reaffirms his class, Ferrari's flawed tyre strategy and other talking points

The 2018 Singapore Grand Prix might not go down as a classic motor-race, but it offered several talking points. First is, quite simply put, Lewis Hamilton. Second, Ferrari’s inabilities to overcome their Singapore horrors while Mercedes managing to overcome their fears regarding the street circuit. Third, the ‘tyre management’ that can transform Formula 1 to Formula Yawn by costing us only a few seconds a lap. And lastly, Sergey Sirotkin — the Singapore Grand Prix was definitely an advertisement of sorts for his otherwise undiscussed talent.

It’s All About Lewis Hamilton

The modern era of Formula 1 has often prompted one to ask what is more crucial in the man-machine sport, the man or the machine? The recent seasons of domination have often prompted one to believe that the impact of of the ‘man’ in the sport is only diminishing and it is only the driver with the best car that is poised to win. However, 2018 seems to be the season where Lewis Hamilton is most definitely proving that it is his talent that has made him and Mercedes lead their respective championships despite losing the disputable ‘fastest package on the grid’ status to Ferrari in the last few races.

The two areas of reference are Hamilton’s performances against his team-mate Valtteri Bottas and second, Hamilton winning four of the last five races to extend his championship lead to an almost invincible 40 points. Leaving aside what circuits suited which team better, wins in Italy, Hungary and Germany were all down to Hamilton’s talent, ability to adapt to mixed weather conditions and engage in clean wheel-to-wheel battles with his rivals. In the case of a comparison to Bottas, Hamilton has seven wins while Bottas is (surprisingly) yet to win this season. And of course, there are several metrics apart from just the number of wins that can be used to explain the difference in performance between the two Mercedes drivers. Bottas’ season has gone from someone who could’ve led the Drivers’ Championship had it been for luck favouring his results to a driver now that could be used strategically by Mercedes to help Hamilton’s title cause. However, with only 6 races to go and a 40 points gap to Sebastian Vettel, Mercedes and Hamilton might not need such a favour from Bottas.

Singapore Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton reaffirms his class Ferraris flawed tyre strategy and other talking points

Lewis Hamilton extended his lead to 40 points after victory in Singapore Grand Prix. AP

Ferrari — Consistently Losing Ground

Ferrari pride themselves on having built a racing car this season that can adapt to every circuit on the calendar. However, despite having the fastest package, the Ferrari-Vettel combination have been unable to exploit their true potential for championship advantage. Like 2017, the second-half of the season held much promise for Ferrari-Vettel in the championships. Even more so the Singapore Grand Prix — a circuit where the Mercedes were expected to struggle allowing Ferrari-Vettel to claw back as much championship deficit as possible. In fact, the results from the free practice sessions did make one wonder if a Ferrari 1-2 (Vettel followed by Raikkonen) could help reignite Vettel’s title charge against Hamilton and reduce his deficit from 30 points to 20. However, instead of being a trump card for Ferrari, Singapore seems to be Ferrari’s Achilles Heel.

On the other hand, Mercedes seemed to overcome their fears of Singapore as Hamilton drove a ‘magic lap’ to claim a surprise pole position in qualifying — yet another display of the man over the machine as Bottas was 4th, seven tenths off. After starting from pole position, Hamilton drove an almost unchallenged race from start to finish to claim his 69th career victory. Vettel, who started 3rd, did well to overtake Max Verstappen on the opening lap and maintain 2nd till the first round of pit-stops, making many believe that the Singapore Grand Prix would be fiercely contested by the two title rivals. However, the timing and choice of Ferrari’s tyre strategy was puzzling as it denied Vettel any chance of victory and in fact left him with just about enough to settle for third.

Ferrari Outfoxed By Mercedes...

Just before the first (and only) round of pit-stops, Vettel and Ferrari exchanged radio messages wondering if Hamilton-Mercedes’ radio messages on their tyre life were a bluff or not. Clearly, the teams were trying their best to outfox the other to retain their competitive advantage. However, one wouldn’t be able to certainly point out if Vettel pitted because of tyre wear thanks to an aggressive first stint while following Hamilton or thanks to being dummied by Hamilton-Mercedes. Either way, an attempt to undercut Hamilton was Vettel’s best chance of scoring victory given how difficult it was for cars to overtake in Singapore. Hamilton pitted the next lap and retained his race lead, however, Ferrari’s decision to fit the ultra-soft tyre to Vettel as opposed to the preferred soft compound tyre was baffling. Were Ferrari planning a two-stopper race for Vettel?

Well, it could be that they were. The Safety Car has always made an appearance at the Singapore Grand Prix and maybe Ferrari were relying on one to appear later in the race for Vettel. Either way, they were also prepared to run Vettel on the ultra-soft compound till the end, in case the race ran its normal course — which it did. Luckily for Vettel, the ultra-soft tyre lasted till the end of the race and the gap to Bottas was comfortable enough for him to not push his tyres more than required. But after series of races at the start of the season where Ferrari outfoxed Mercedes in tyre strategy to win races they otherwise wouldn’t have, it seems that the tables have turned.

...And By Red Bull

But it wasn’t just Mercedes who Ferrari lost out to in the round of pit-stops. Vettel’s early stop for ultra-softs saw him come out in clear air only for a brief period as he soon found himself caught up behind Sergio Perez. The lap spent trying to overtake Perez (and the subsequent time loss) saw Vettel lose second place to Verstappen in the pit-stops, a position he chased unsuccessfully till the chequered flag. As a result, a further 7 points loss turned into a 10 points loss for Vettel.

The Singapore Grand Prix also highlighted yet another possible flaw in the tyre rules in Formula 1 — that of having the top-10 drivers start the race on the same tyre they set their fastest lap in Q2. After clocking a qualifying lap that was nearly 12 seconds faster than the one Hamilton set in Singapore in 2009, his race pace was nearly 3 seconds off the long-run times set in Free Practice 2 on Friday. This was due to the front-runners wanting to nurture their sensitive hyper-soft tyres in a bid to increase their first stint. While it didn’t impact the result of the top-6 drivers at all (they all finished in the same positions they qualified in), it was the remaining four positions in the top-10 that were impacted. Perez and Grosjean lost out to Alonso, Sainz and Leclerc who made the most of their ‘free tyre choice’ (as they started outside the top-10) to run the preferred ultra-soft - soft strategy (other than Leclerc who chose the ultra-soft - hyper-soft option).

Sergey Sirotkin - Great Defences

One could argue that this is the very reason that the rule is in place — to allow drivers outside of the top-10 to fight for points via an alternate strategy. But it doesn’t take into account the difficulty that these cars offer in terms of overtaking — case in point, Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin, who despite being several seconds off the pace was difficult to overtake for Perez and Grosjean. In fact, Sirotkin’s forced tyre stop under the Safety Car period (he took on the softs after needing to pit to remove debris from the Perez-Ocon clash) was the reason why he was a headache for the mid-field drivers in the top-10 who started on hyper-softs. But of course, their on-track battles offered much excitement and also a rare chance for Sirotkin to showcase his talent. Perez’s swipe on Sirotkin was strange and earned him a deserved drive-through penalty, while Grosjean was inflicted with a time and points penalty on his license — a ruling that impacted his race and brought him eerily close to a one race ban should he collect three more points over the next four Grands Prix.

In Perez’s case, the Mexican driver was involved in both the on-track accidents in the Singapore Grand Prix. At the start, he nudged his team-mate Esteban Ocon causing him to crash into the barriers (bringing out the Safety Car) — an act that didn’t gain wrath of the FIA Stewards. However, his swipe on Sirotkin didn’t meet with similar fate. Apart from losing Force India crucial points in the Constructors’ Championship, Perez’s act saw the team announce their intention to announce a ‘rules of engagement’ between both drivers - basically, no racing.

Alonso Is ‘Best of the Rest’

Fernando Alonso’s 7th place finish was yet another talking point of the Singapore Grand Prix. The Spaniard, who will leave Formula 1 and Mclaren in 2019, made the most of his free choice of tyres (benefit of starting from 11th) to claim the ‘best of the rest’. This was also Mclaren’s 2nd points scoring finish in the last five races. They are now 6th with 58 points, 26 points ahead of Force India, but 18 points behind Haas, who failed to score for the second consecutive race. In the battle for 4th, Renault’s double points finish in Singapore saw them open up the gap to Haas by 15 points. They have 91 points, but one would expect the battle for 4th (Renault-Haas) and 6th place (Mclaren-Force India) to go down to the wire.

Is Sebastian Vettel Doing Too Much?

Finally, there is merit in pondering why Vettel seems to be dropping the ball after coming this close to Hamilton for the second season in succession. Vettel, who has soaked up and performed under pressure during his days of glory at Red Bull Racing, has consistently been unable to maintain the grip on their championship this season despite having a package that every other driver on the grid would dream of. Is Vettel needing to manage much-too-much of Ferrari while performing his driving duties from the cockpit? While radio messages seem to suggest so, is this also the reason Alonso left Ferrari with the belief that the team could never deliver a World Championship?

As we near the end of the 2018 Formula 1 Season, let’s hope that the Vettel vs Hamilton battle is settled fairly on-track. And irrespective of which driver wins, this season has already gone a long way in redefining Hamilton’s legendary status in the sport.

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