PLUS: ROS­BERG VIC­TORY GIVES HIM THE POINTS AD­VAN­TAGE

Ger­man re­gains the cham­pi­onship lead af­ter Sin­ga­pore vic­tory

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Nico Ros­berg staved off a re­lent­less lat­er­ace as­sault from Red Bull’s Daniel Ric­cia­rdo to claim vic­tory for Mercedes from pole po­si­tion in Sin­ga­pore. It was an im­por­tant win for his cham­pi­onship prospects, but one which Red Bull nearly whisked out from un­der him like a stage ma­gi­cian whip­ping a table­cloth from be­neath a full place set­ting.

Ros­berg now leads Lewis Hamil­ton, who fin­ished third, by 273 points to 265.

High brake tem­per­a­tures af­flicted both Mercedes cars from the early stages of the race, and be­ing forced to man­age those meant nei­ther Ros­berg nor Hamil­ton could ex­ploit the full per­for­mance avail­able from the Mercedes pack­age. It left Hamil­ton du­elling with Fer­rari’s Kimi Raikko­nen for third place, while Ric­cia­rdo stayed in touch with Ros­berg through­out and then made best use of an ad­di­tional pit­stop to hound the ail­ing leader while rolling on fresher rub­ber in the clos­ing laps.

Hamil­ton was on the back foot all week­end af­ter los­ing track time to a hy­draulic prob­lem dur­ing prac­tice, and started third on the grid af­ter Ros­berg out­qual­i­fied him by a mas­sive 0.7s. At one stage in the race it looked like he might lose out to Raikko­nen, but a tac­ti­cal blunder by Fer­rari re­stored his ad­van­tage.

Qual­i­fy­ing

Se­bas­tian Vet­tel was the slow­est of the qual­i­fiers af­ter a failed anti-roll­bar in his Fer­rari’s rear sus­pen­sion left him cor­ner­ing on three wheels, and he aborted his fi­nal at­tempt at a fly­ing lap. His mes­sage to the team upon en­try to the pits – “Come on, guys, we didn’t need to lose more time” – sug­gests they failed to make a rapid de­ci­sion on what to do af­ter he first re­ported the prob­lem. Still, re­pair­ing it was a sub­stan­tial job, and would prob­a­bly not have been com­pleted in time even if he had re­turned straight away.

Vet­tel’s woes pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for at least one of the usual Q1 ca­su­al­ties to progress to Q2. Sauber’s Mar­cus Eric­s­son won that bat­tle in spite of los­ing vi­tal track time to an en­gine fail­ure dur­ing prac­tice, while the other Sauber of Fe­lipe Nasr joined the Re­naults and Manors as Q1 ca­su­al­ties. In those in­ternecine bat­tles Pas­cal Wehrlein pre­vailed over Este­ban Ocon and Kevin Mag­nussen bet­tered Jolyon Palmer, who re­ported a to­tal ab­sence of rear-end grip.

Since the driv­ers must start the race on the tyres they used to set their hot laps in Q2, Red Bull gave it­self some tac­ti­cal flex­i­bil­ity by send­ing both Daniel Ric­cia­rdo and Max Ver­stap­pen out on the su­per­softs to make their Q2 runs while their prin­ci­pal ri­vals were on the marginally more grippy but less durable ul­tra­softs. They were quick enough on the the­o­ret­i­cally slower rub­ber to be third and fourth be­hind the two Mercedes, safely through to Q3, while the back end of the top 10 was much more closely dis­puted. Nico Hulken­berg’s Force In­dia and the Wil­liams of Valt­teri Bot­tas were sep­a­rated by three hun­dredths of a sec­ond, and it was Bot­tas who took the drop when Fer­nando Alonso hoisted his Mclaren’s skirts and popped in a last-gasp ef­fort quicker than both of them.

Jen­son But­ton tapped the wall and broke a wheel rim, rob­bing him of any chance to progress, so he lined up be­hind the two Wil­liams cars, while the two Haas en­tries also re­mained in the Q2 hin­ter­land. Este­ban Gu­tier­rez got the bet­ter of Ro­main Gros­jean, who went off while try­ing to im­prove and smote the bar­ri­ers for the sec­ond time this week­end, in­cur­ring a five-place penalty for the gear­box change that came as a con­se­quence. Af­ter his Q1 hero­ics Eric­s­son had no an­swer to the cars ahead, fin­ish­ing the ses­sion two sec­onds off Gros­jean’s pace, but at least he kept it on the is­land.

Red Bull and Mercedes had seemed closely matched dur­ing prac­tice, though the bal­ance was more in favour of Mercedes, and Ros­berg ex­celled on his first run in Q3. No one could then get close to him – not even Ros­berg him­self, since he fell a frac­tion short on his sec­ond at­tempt. Ric­cia­rdo came clos­est, but in spite of set­ting a per­sonal best in the sec­ond sec­tor and go­ing quick­est of all in the third, he was al­most half a sec­ond off. Still, that was good enough to un­seat Hamil­ton, who had a scrappy sec­ond fly­ing lap and failed to im­prove, con­sign­ing him­self to third on the grid.

“It’s just not been my week­end so far,” he rued. The team at­trib­uted his set-up and brak­ing trou­bles to a lack of track time brought on by a hy­draulic fail­ure on Fri­day.

“Lewis’s car was not where it should have been af­ter free prac­tice one,” said team boss Toto Wolff. “It’s not easy to find the right com­pro­mise be­tween the set-up of the car and get­ting the tyres in the right win­dow and giv­ing the driver a con­fi­dent feel­ing. Here we failed. He didn’t have a car to­day from which he was able to ex­tract all the per­for­mance.”

Ver­stap­pen was just 0.3s off Hamil­ton in fourth place, and an even smaller gap sep­a­rated him from Raikko­nen. Out­side the top five the mar­gins grew, al­though Daniil Kvyat had his strong­est qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion in months to post a time just a frac­tion off team­mate Car­los Sainz, both ahead of the more fan­cied Hulken­berg, Alonso and Ser­gio Perez. There was fur­ther angst in store for Perez when he was hit with an eight-place drop for pass­ing Gu­tier­rez un­der yel­low-flag con­di­tions as they passed the scene of But­ton’s shunt; he felt that Gu­tier­rez was go­ing so slowly that he had no al­ter­na­tive.

Race

No Sin­ga­pore Grand Prix has passed with­out at least one safety car de­ploy­ment, and Bernd May­lan­der’s ser­vices were called upon straight away.

Ros­berg, Ric­cia­rdo, Hamil­ton and Raikko­nen made clean get­aways from their grid spots but Ver­stap­pen was slow away, forc­ing Sainz to sw­erve in avoid­ance from his launch­ing point on the row be­hind. He then clipped Hulken­berg, who was spun around and hit the wall.

As the rest of the field then fun­nelled through the left-right-left of Turns 1, 2 and 3, But­ton and Bot­tas touched, send­ing both to the pits – But­ton for a new front wing, Bot­tas for a new set of tyres.

To com­pound the ner­vous­ness of these open­ing laps, Bot­tas was re­leased al­most into the path of Vet­tel as the safety car led the field through the pit­lane, then the race was green-flagged while a mar­shal was still retriev­ing de­bris from the pit straight. He ran to safety just as the lead­ing cars were com­ing past at full chat.

The con­fu­sion at the start cre­ated op­por­tu­ni­ties for some as Alonso vaulted past both Toro Ros­sos to run fifth, while Mag­nussen made up five places to slot in to 10th, be­hind Ver­stap­pen and Massa. The Toro Rosso driv­ers would come to rue be­ing jumped by Alonso, since the Mclaren be­came some­thing of a rolling road­block as the lead­ing four be­gan to run clear in a strung-out group. There was worse to come for Sainz, though – he was shown a black-and-or­ange flag and di­rected into the pits so a barge­board dam­aged in the im­pact with Hulken­berg could be re­moved.

“I don’t know why,” he said, “be­cause there was noth­ing dan­ger­ous on the car, but I was forced to stop early. And when you do that, you’re be­hind all the traf­fic and your race is ru­ined.”

The MGU-K el­e­ment of his hy­brid sys­tem then failed on lap 20, leav­ing him 300bhp down on his ri­vals for the rest of the race, which he de­scribed as “a dis­as­ter”.

From the very early laps, both Mercedes driv­ers were be­ing in­structed to man­age their brake tem­per­a­tures, so Ros­berg wasn’t able to fully lean on his ul­tra­soft tyres to build a gap, and Hamil­ton wasn’t able to chal­lenge Ric­cia­rdo. The lead­ing four were locked in a stale­mate, run­ning around two sec­onds apart, un­til Fer­rari told Raikko­nen to put Hamil­ton un­der pres­sure and he closed al­most to within a sec­ond.

Al­though the Red Bulls were on tyres that had a the­o­ret­i­cally longer life­span, Ver­stap­pen was com­plain­ing that he was go­ing “slower and slower”, so he pit­ted be­fore both the ul­tra­soft-shod Mercedes. Ric­cia­rdo and Hamil­ton both dived for the pit­lane on lap 15, each mak­ing a tac­ti­cal play that ul­ti­mately came to noth­ing: Ric­cia­rdo left on a new set of su­per­softs, Hamil­ton on new softs, but they re­mained in a net sec­ond and third places, and Ric­cia­rdo’s chance of mak­ing an un­der­cut work on Ros­berg was squan­dered by him emerg­ing from the pit­lane di­rectly be­hind Massa.

Ros­berg made his own stop a lap later, and it wasn’t very quick, but he still re­joined with time in hand. As the stint pro­gressed, Hamil­ton slipped out of touch with Ric­cia­rdo and into the hands of Raikko­nen, mak­ing his frus­tra­tion very clear to the team.

“We need some sort of plan be­cause this is all the pace I’ve got

with the brakes,” said the Bri­ton.

At the end of their stints Ric­cia­rdo pit­ted just be­fore Ros­berg once again, on lap 32, both of them tak­ing on soft tyres. But the Mercedes pit gave Ros­berg the nod to push and se­lect a dif­fer­ent en­gine mode, which en­abled him to thwart Red Bull’s at­tempted un­der­cut once more. Dur­ing this flurry of pit ac­tiv­ity Hamil­ton locked up at Turn 7 and lost mo­men­tum, open­ing the door for Raikko­nen to el­bow his way through at Turn 10, but it was a short-lived change of po­si­tion since Raikko­nen im­me­di­ately headed to the pits for his sched­uled stop. Hamil­ton pit­ted next time round, had a stinker of an in-lap, and saw the Fer­rari flash past as he ac­cel­er­ated out.

Mercedes in­formed Lewis that it was time to switch to “Plan B” and he im­me­di­ately set the fastest lap of the race so far in pur­suit of Raikko­nen. Then, af­ter just 11 laps on what had been a new set of soft tyres, he made a third and fi­nal stop for used su­per­softs. Fer­rari briefly ap­peared be­wil­dered.

“Are we go­ing to box, or what?” asked Raikko­nen over the ra­dio. Hav­ing done just 13 laps on his new softs he could eas­ily have run to the end, but Fer­rari elected to bring him straight in for a used set of ul­tra­softs. Hamil­ton ex­e­cuted the un­der­cut per­fectly and ran ahead of Raikko­nen to the flag.

“What do you want me to do in the pit­lane,” huffed Raikko­nen over the ra­dio. “Go faster?”

Hav­ing won that tac­ti­cal scrap with Fer­rari, Mercedes had to re­act quickly again a lap later when Ric­cia­rdo pit­ted to take on a new set of su­per­softs. Ros­berg got the call to pit, but to be pre­pared to abort as the strate­gists mulled over what traf­fic lay ahead. At the last mo­ment they told him to stay out.

The op­por­tu­nity to pit had passed. Next time around, Ric­cia­rdo had be­gun to slice into what had been a 26-sec­ond lead at a rate of three sec­onds a lap. Ros­berg could not now pit and emerge in the lead. All he could do was try to man­age his tyres to the flag and de­fend if Ric­cia­rdo caught up.

The Red Bull was loom­ing in Ros­berg’s mir­rors as they crossed the line – and, with traf­fic ahead, if the race had been a lap longer the re­sult might have been dif­fer­ent. But in­stead, Ros­berg pre­vailed at a venue that has been par­tic­u­larly un­kind to him in the past.

“Last year we were ab­so­lutely nowhere here,” he said. “We got de­stroyed by Red Bull and Fer­rari, and we un­der­stood what went wrong, and came back this year and beat them on their best track.”

Ros­berg took his third win in a row to snatch ti­tle lead back

Start line chaos ended with Hulken­berg be­ing fired into the wall

BY STU­ART CODLING

‘His car was im­pos­si­ble to drive all week­end’ Gros­jean has a night-race drama, p7

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