It was written in the stars that the 2015 Singapore grand prix would be a disaster for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. After a fortnight of hype and hysteria that Hamilton would equal Senna’s win record, earn the most pole positions in a row and achieve all this virtually within the same number of races as Ayrton Senna, it became a certainty that it would not happen and it didn’t.
The accolades listed above were not premeditated on a whim though, after all, Mercedes are THE dominant team of the moment and we’ve become used to seeing Hamilton and Mercedes team mate, Nico Rosberg duelling for first place 30 seconds ahead of the rest of the field for almost 2 years now. At some point something has to change and usually in F1, things change out of nowhere and very quickly indeed.
Sebastian Vettel was the deserved victor last weekend. He claimed pole position by a large margin to second place man Daniel Ricciardo and trounced his team mate Kimi Raikkonen who ended up in 3rd. The subsequent race was reminiscent of the glory days (not for non-Vettel fans) of his Red Bull years where guaranteed poles led to guaranteed easy wins. This win wasn’t necessarily easy but it was well controlled. Sinagpore is a difficult track to overtake on but a number of factors seemed to have aided Vettels victory nonetheless.
The two safety cars, A man on track, Hamilton’s DNF and tyre wear issues for many of the teams, particularly Mercedes ensured that Vettel perhaps got away without any potential challenge to his lead that surely would have come. Singapore is a slow burner. In recent years we have seen drivers manage their cars and tyres until the last 20 laps before they turn up the wick and race like mad until the chequered flag. The events listed above scuppered this. Hamilton was on a different tyre strategy before his DNF and he should have been brought into play for a podium position and possibly (only maybe) an outside chance of challenging for a victory. The safety cars scuppered Daniel Ricciardo’s chance of challenging Vettels lead and Red Bull along with pundits alike believe that had no safety cars appeared then Ricciardo would likely have won the race such was the pace and good tyre management on the Red Bull cars.
The nature of the track and the difficulty it presents to overtaking also caused the field to back up from Vettel in the lead. Kimi was slow in 3rd and so to were Hamilton and Rosberg in 4th and 5th respectively for the early phase of the race. Danil Kvyat in the second Red Bull was swarming all over Rosberg for much of the first stint but was unable to get by on track.
Further down the field there was plenty of action. Max Verstappen again showed his world champion potential. After stalling on the grid before the race he was wheeled back to the pit lane and started there. He finished 8th; a phenomenal achievement at his first Singapore night race in F1. As a 17 year old, many believed that Max would be too young to deal with the pressure in F1 but he certainly stood up to his team when he refused to move aside for his team mate, Carlos Sainz Jr. After the race, the team agreed that Max was correct in his decision and should be applauded and not punished. Sainz Jr was reportedly livid and believed that he was faster at that time.
Toro Rosso seem to be building themselves around Max Verstappen at the moment. He can’t seem to do anything wrong, even when he chooses to ignore team orders. With his father ever present in the garage and seemingly, highly influential it would be silly to ignore the stark similarities between Max’s situation and the near identical one of Hamilton in 2007 where he rattled then team mate Fernando Alonso and won the support of McLaren with his dad as the key stone.
With 2016/17 drives now THE hot topic in the paddock I think any big team would be insane to not consider Max Verstappen. Valteri Bottas, Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean all seem to be touted as the next championship candidates in the younger generation of F1 drivers but if I owned a quick F1 team, I would already be on the blower to Mr Verstappen above any of those. It’s rumoured that Grosjean has moved to Ferrari powered Haas F1 next year with a view to move to Ferrari in 2017 to replace Raikkonen but I can’t see that happening. Max Verstappen is too good and I believe Ferrari will not pass him up. The only reason why Verstappen may not get a drive with Ferrari may be down to Vettel, will he want a team mate as dangerous and as young as Verstappen? He couldn’t handle Ricciardo so probably not.
Williams suffered mixed fortunes. Felipe Massa had a strange run in with Nico Hulkenberg after the two collided at turn 2 at the pit exit; the result, minor damage for Massa and broken suspension and thus a DNF for Hulkenberg. Hulkenberg was given a harsh 3 place grid penalty for his troubles but I have to say that it was a 50/50 incident. After looking at each drivers car cameras and the TV footage, Massa clearly saw Hulkenberg approaching turn 2 but assumed that Hulkenberg had seen him exiting the pitlane. Hulkenberg made no attempt to avoid Massa so it looks as though he didn’t see him thus, an inevitable crash. Massa later retired with gearbox trouble whilst Bottas finished 5th but also carried a gearbox problem.
McLaren suffered further misery after what looked to be a solid weekend for them after qualifying. McLaren were hopeful of points for both cars this weekend but again it wasn’t to be. Alonso retired later on with a gearbox problem after it overheated and so did Jenson Button after an epic race where he collided with the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado and lost his front wing. Yet again for McLaren it was a double DNF and it’s now looking increasingly unlikely that they will score any more points this season.
Manor Marussia had an ok weekend at the back of the grid but things could have been better. Alex Rossi debuted and did a fairly good job on track after his dismal performances in practice where he crashed and his last position in qualifying. He did manage to beat his team mate and finish 14th which sounds generous considering the amount of retirements there were. His team mate Will Stevens, reported extremely heavy tyre wear at the end of the race and couldn’t do anything to challenge his team mate at all.
An odd race?
Singapore is a fairly new addition to the F1 calendar and although it is a bit of a procession at times it is also building a reputation of becoming completely unpredictable and it has a tendency to throw up very strange scenarios, twists and tales of the unexpected. From Massa dragging an entire fuel hose up in flames down the pitlane in 2008 to the man wandering happily down the track mid race in 2015 this race has already seen it all.
As I’ve mentioned the race itself tends to be a slow burner and tyre management is difficult due to the extreme tropical heat. The extreme heat also reaps havoc with the cars and once again this year we saw a lot of gearboxes and brakes overheating. Despite being only 61 laps this race is still 2 hours long and only manages to finish within the 2 hour time limit on the odd occasion. There have been a few times when this race has gone on for over 2 hours and has had to be cut short!
2015 saw very strange going on’s indeed. After Mercedes smashed the field the previous weekend in Monza, including the much improved Ferrari cars, they arrived in Singapore and couldn’t achieve greater than 5th on the grid in qualifying. Very bizarre. Adversely, Red Bull who had become so sick of the “slow” Renault” engine had actually revealed that they’d severed ties with them for next year were very, very quick and so to were Ferrari. It didn’t make sense. Both Red Bull and Ferrari finished over 25 seconds behind Mercedes at the Italian grand prix yet they both annihilated them in Singapore.
It’s not only on track shenanigans that capture the attention of the media in Singapore. A man was arrested after walking down the circuit mid race and there were reports of chaos erupting between circuit security and Ferrari personnel/mechanics after which Arrivabene (Ferrari team principal) had to issue an official apology. Stranger still there was an incident on the podium where the leader of ceremonies had to take a flag from Sebastian Vettel. I’m unaware of the details as I didn’t see it but again, very odd!
Do Mercedes really have to panic?
Of course, the weekend ended with Vettel being hailed as the hero rising in the face of adversity and being touted as the man who could take the championship from Hamilton this year whilst to the media, Mercedes were finished. This is all complete rubbish. Vettel deserved to win but his job was certainly made easier due to the woes of Mercedes set up issues which they carried all weekend. The fact of the matter is that a team like Mercedes don’t all of a sudden lose an enormous 1.5/2.5 second per lap advantage that they’ve enjoyed for the last 18 months to all of a sudden find themselves stuck down in 5th and 6th.
Mercedes new upgraded engine that they introduced back in Monza is phenomenal but potentially unreliable compared to it’s predecessor. At the Monza race weekend Mercedes toyed with Ferrari like a killer whale toys with a seal. Ferrari were close to Mercedes throughout many of the sessions but were absolutely blown out of orbit during the race such was Mercedes pace. The frightening thing for Ferrari was that they too used an upgraded engine in Monza which is also brilliant but significantly they were still crushed by Mercedes.
So why were Mercedes all of a sudden relegated to the midfield in terms of pace? Interviews with team personnel have revealed that for some reason they were not able to get the car setup right at all. Rosberg claimed that he “went around in a circle, trying different setups until we realised the best of the bunch was the first one we’d tried”. Similarly Hamilton claimed that the tyre wear was so severe in every setup configuration for the car that there was virtually no grip.
The sudden loss of power that forced Hamilton into retirement was the result of a mere tiny piece of metal that was in fact a clamp that linked the intercooler to the engine. It simply broke and fell off and is as “freakish” as team boss Toto Wolff described it. Mercedes have run this design since the first tests in January 2014 and it’s never failed…bad luck on Hamilton’s part.
Had Hamilton stayed in the race it would have been interesting to see where he would finish, particularly given the safety car periods and the effect they had on preventing Red Bull from challenging for the win (The timing of the safety car on both occasions made it difficult for Red Bull to utilise their strength in tyre preservation by arriving immediately after they’d pitted, particularly in Kvyats case). Ever the racer, Hamilton claimed that he would have challenged Vettel for the win but I don’t believe that he had the pace to do that. More likely he would have fended off Rosberg and probably would have caught Kimi for third but all in all it doesn’t matter now that it’s over.
Hamilton still has 41 points between him and nearest title rival Rosberg. Significantly, given that Mercedes were comparatively slow compared to other races this year, Hamilton was still quicker than Rosberg during the race. All he has to do for the remaining races is finish ahead of Rosberg to claim that 3rd world title.
Mercedes don’t need to panic. They need to regroup and turn up at the phenomenally fast Suzuka circuit in Japan next week with a better package. Mercedes excel at first circuits and they should be expected to resume business at the front of the pack. Singapore should be a blip and all the talk of the resurgence of Vettel and Ferrari will be stashed back in the filing cabinet again until the next time Mercedes develop problems.
Journalists jump onto situations like the one in Singapore to inject interest into the sport. That, I suppose is their job. Although Vettel’s victory was a solid performance and deserved, I believe that it was more to do with the fortune of the safety cars preventing an attack from Ricciardo/Kvyat, Mercedes’ poor balance and excessive tyre wear and the nature of the slow speed but twisty Singapore circuit. Mercedes’s poor performance has been described as a blip and adversely I also believe that Ferrari’s good performance was also a blip going by recent results.
Is there a Mercedes vs Ferrari battle emerging for 2016?
From 2010 to 2013 F1 endured a slightly boring championship for the sole reason that it’s only contenders, Red Bull barred their two drivers, Vettel and Mark Webber from really racing each other. It was down to the likes of Fernando Alonso, Robert Kubica, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton etc to do the racing and overtaking and to excite the fans.
Moving onto 2014 and 2015 we have sole team dominance once again, but at least Mercedes let their drivers race which has thankfully led to some exhilarating grands prix to watch. Despite this it is about time that we’re treated to an open championship where drivers from different teams are fighting for the title.
It’s too late for Ferrari to challenge Mercedes for the constructors title this year and it’s highly improbable that Vettel will get a sniff of the drivers title this year (although don’t forget that in 2010 he came from nowhere to win his first title) as well. Next year could be the first championship since 2010 that could go to drivers from different teams and that’s likely to be between Hamilton, Rosberg, Vettel and Raikkonen and here’s why.
Ferrari arrived in Singapore with a handful of aero upgrades that they believed would compliment their car for next year. They dutifully bolted them to the car for P1 and were happily surprised at how effective they were. They left the components on the car for the entire weekend. There is no doubt that the Ferrari, as a package in it’s entirety has improved.
The Singapore result has made the prospect of next year very interesting. Mercedes will have spent a great deal of time already this year preparing for next year. That is the luxury of dominance, you don’t have to wait until late November to seriously start developing next years car after pushing all the way through a season. Ferrari have a better, faster engine but I don’t think that the aero pieces they brought to Singapore gained them 2.5 seconds per lap more than Mercedes, in a fortnight!
Mercedes blip last weekend has overshadowed their status as the team to beat. If they are having a bit of trouble with this new engine (Remember that Rosberg had some difficulties in Monza with it) then they should be able to hone and develop it. If their new engine is unreliable then maybe this will open the door for Ferrari to push for more wins and make them realistic.
We should be poised nicely for a Ferrari vs Mercedes battle next year if both teams continue to develop at this rate.