Analysis of the Singapore Grand Prix, brought to you by Bahrain International Circuit
For the first time in a number of months, the F1 circus arrived at race day with the expectation of a win from a driver outside of the Red Bull camp. Both Verstappen and Perez had suffered all weekend on the streets of Singapore, so much so that neither were able to even make it to the final part of qualifying, with Verstappen in 11th and Perez a lowly 13th.
There had been warnings from the team that this tight, high-downforce circuit would not be suited to the current champions, but no one really expected them to be that far adrift. Whilst Verstappen has driven some special recoveries this season, coming from 15th to second in Saudi Arabia and ninth to victory in Miami, Singapore is very different given the limited overtaking opportunities.
There was some interruption at the start of qualifying, after Lance Stroll had a major crash on the final corner. Whilst he walked away from the incident, the team decided to focus on his recovery for the next race in Japan. It was another reminder on how impressive safety features on both car and circuit have developed over the last few years.
After the clear up, it was left to Ferrari to shine, and in particular Carlos Sainz, who took pole having looked quick all weekend. George Russell looked as comfortable as he has been all season in the Mercedes, qualifying second, with Leclerc, in the other Ferrari, third. Lando Norris was close behind in fourth, in a car which carried yet more McLaren upgrades, continuing their incredible development progress, with Lewis Hamilton completing the top five.
Realistically, with Red Bull out of the way, any of those top five had a seriously good chance of victory. Whilst overtaking may be tricky, there is so much uncertainty in Singapore with a safety car pretty much guaranteed, as it has appeared in every race since its first appearance in 2008. Drivers also had to get used to a revised track layout in the final sector, meaning that historical data, used for strategy planning, was much less useful than normal, with lap times almost ten seconds quicker.
Despite the narrow streets, the race got underway without major incident, with the top five getting away reasonably well, although swift reactions from Leclerc gave him the jump on Russell. With a one-stop strategy the preferred option, tyre preservation was the key for the first stint, with most cars expected to run the medium tyre until around lap 25, followed by a longer stint to the end on hard tyres. That meant something of a procession to start with, although Verstappen did manage to make up three places in the early stages.
The tempo changed on lap 20, with the inevitable appearance of the safety car after Sergeant brushed the wall. The top five all pitted, although a delay on the Leclerc stop meant that Norris leapfrogged him. It was only the two Red Bulls who didn’t stop and the ensuing scraps between Perez and Norris and then Hamilton, followed by Verstappen and Russell kept fans amused. Once the Red Bulls were out of the way, by half race distance there was just two seconds separating the top four of Sainz, Russell, Norris and Hamilton.
This all changed, however, on lap 44, as a mechanical failure for Ocon brought out a virtual safety car. Most drivers stayed out, but Mercedes made a brave call to pit for new medium tyres. Whilst this cost them track position, the fresh rubber would – they hoped – give them a chance to catch the front runners. Given the situation at the time, it was a gamble worth taking given that the status quo was unlikely to change in the closing laps.
What turned out was a grandstand finish of epic proportions. Catching at over two seconds a lap, both Mercedes hunted down the 15 second gap to Leclerc and overtook him with some considerable ease. With just three laps to go, the gap between the top four was just 1.4 seconds, with both Mercedes pressuring Norris and Sainz up ahead.
Given the heat, humidity and testing nature of the track, it was a credit to all the drivers for maintaining such an incredible level of concentration. Unfortunately for Russell though, on the last lap a touch of the wall put him into the barrier and out of the race. It was a heartbreaking end to a wonderful fight from the Brit.
This gave enough breathing space for Norris and Sainz to hold their positions ahead of Hamilton. It meant a second career F1 win for Sainz and his first at Ferrari. For Norris, his second place again reflected the incredible work by McLaren in the last few races. Hamilton’s third was also a strong result for the former champion. Further behind, Leclerc held on for fourth, with Verstappen fifth. Pierre Gasly was sixth and Piastri drove well from 17th to finish seventh. Perez, Lawson and Magnussen completed the top ten.
The race, however, will be long remembered for the action of the last 20 laps. It was a reminder, if one was needed, of what incredible drama this sport can create.
F1 is straight back into action this weekend, with the Japanese Grand Prix. Red Bull will be keen to demonstrate that the Singapore was a one-off.
* Laurence Jones is senior manager, Marketing and Communications, Bahrain International Circuit