Reports from Singapore, Russia and Japan
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari couldn’t take the heat in Singapore, but for Lewis Hamilton it was no sweat at a track where Mercedes have previously struggled
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes swept to a virtually unchallenged win in the 2018 Singapore Grand Prix as yet another Ferrari tactical blunder cost Sebastian Vettel the chance of victory. On a weekend in which they could reasonably have expected to be dominant, Vettel and Ferrari once again demonstrated their propensity to wobble under pressure.
Instead, Vettel had to settle for third place behind Max Verstappen, even though Red Bull had struggled throughout the weekend with a ‘spec C’ Renault power unit that rarely ran cleanly in the humid air.
Vettel arguably laid the foundations for his undoing during Friday second practice, when a moment’s inattention led to a brush with the wall at Turn 21. This was the only practice session in which both the time of day and track conditions overlapped with those of qualifying and the race, and Vettel spent 45 minutes of it parked in the garage while mechanics attended to an impact-induced leak.
Initially Vettel waved off suggestions that this might prove critical, saying he and Ferrari had learned enough about the SF71H already this season to not miss that track time. But 24 hours later he would be ruefully relating a different narrative after Hamilton and Verstappen plucked mega laps out of nowhere to occupy the front row. Red Bull had been fastest in first practice before dropping off the pace as Kimi Räikkönen and Vettel dominated the times in the following sessions, but Hamilton was typically peerless when it counted on Saturday evening, annexing pole with a lap even he couldn’t beat on his second run.
The leading trio left their de facto number twos – Valtteri Bottas, Räikkönen and Daniel Ricciardo trailing in third to sixth, while Sergio Perez claimed ‘class B’ pole for Force India in seventh from the Haas of Romain Grosjean.
Hamilton and Vettel made the best starts of the top three and the polesitting Mercedes cut cleanly through the first two corners as second-placed Verstappen had to defend his position from Vettel.
Behind them, Sergio Perez nudged Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon into the outside wall at Turn 3, eliminating Ocon from the race and bringing out the Safety Car. But before race control took the decision to neutralise the race, Vettel made use of a better exit from Turn 5 to draw alongside Verstappen and pass him on the outside into Turn 7.
In their wake, the majority of the top 10 got away in grid order - Bottas in fourth followed by Räikkönen, Ricciardo, Perez and Grosjean - but ultrasoft runners Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz each gained two positions, at the expense of Nico Hulkenberg and the now-absent Ocon.
The race got under way again at the end of lap 4 but the frontrunners were running cautiously, nearly 11 seconds off qualifying pace, so as to manage their fragile hypersoft tyres and extend the first stint as far as possible.
As the lap count entered double figures the frontrunners lifted their pace in anticipation of the pitstops. Vettel was the first to dive in, on lap 14, taking on a set of ultrasofts. The stop would prove disastrous for Vettel, since he emerged behind Perez and spent two laps bottled up behind him. Meanwhile Hamilton and Verstappen pitted on successive laps to take on soft Pirellis with a clear strategy of running to the end with no further stops.
Hamilton returned seamlessly into the net lead, and although Verstappen’s engine stuttered slightly as he left the pit apron, he just squeaked ahead of Vettel into Turn 3.
The initial pitstop phase left Hamilton with a 3s lead over Verstappen once Ricciardo became the last of the frontrunners to change tyres, on lap 27. Vettel was a frustrated third, telling his team “We will not make it to the end.”
As at the Monaco GP, drivers starting outside
the top 10 with a free tyre choice benefitted as some of those ahead on softer rubber pitted first. Conversely, when Perez, Nico Hülkenberg and Grosjean shed their hypersoft boots they emerged behind the trundling tail-end Williams pairing of Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin, who were on soft tyres and had no plans to stop promptly.
This prompted the race’s second significant incident when Perez grew impatient with Sirotkin and swerved at him as he finally went past at Turn 17 on lap 33, picking up a puncture in the process and enabling Hülkenberg to nip through. As Grosjean tried to follow Hülkenberg through the pair baulked Hamilton as he came up to lap them, enabling Verstappen to enter attacking range.
This came to nothing, though, and Hamilton stretched his margin out to 3s, remaining out of reach until the flag, eventually finishing 8.9s clear – with Vettel a further 30.9s down the road.
While Hamilton, Verstappen, Vettel and Bottas nursed their tyres to the finish, a battle for fourth place erupted in the closing laps as Ricciardo closed in on Räikkönen, who in turn crept up on Bottas. But nothing came of it and Bottas crossed the line 1s clear.
Alonso took seventh for Mclaren from 11th on the grid, using a long first stint on the ultrasofts to gain track position at Grosjean’s expense, and then rebuffing an attempted undercut by Sainz when he made his single stop on lap 38. Charles Leclerc, another to start outside the top 10 on ultrasofts, followed Sainz home in ninth, while Hülkenberg completed a recovery drive from his indifferent start to round out the top 10.
“ONCE CLEAR, THOUGH, HAMILTON STRETCHED HIS MARGIN OUT T“O 3S AND REMAINED OUT OF REACH UNTIL THE CHEQUERED FLAG, EVENTUALLY FINISHING 8.9S CLEAR - WITH VETTEL A FURTHER 30.9S DOWN THE ROAD
Lewis pulls away at the start (above) for a fantastic win (below) as Seb, despite his early move on Max (left and right) loses out through strategy