PLUS: ROSBERG VICTORY GIVES HIM THE POINTS ADVANTAGE
German regains the championship lead after Singapore victory
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.
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.
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.”
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