Martin Brundle on the Singapore GP: Carlos Sainz the maestro at Marina Bay as Red Bull come unstuck
Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle reviews the Singapore GP as Carlos Sainz gives Ferrari their first win since July 2022 after Red Bull finally faltered in 2023; Lando Norris' day "will surely come" after another podium while George Russell must overcome the hurt of crashing out on final lap
Last Updated: 21/09/23 7:58am
Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle delivers his expert verdict on the Singapore GP weekend as Carlos Sainz delivers a masterful drive to give Ferrari a long-awaited win after Red Bull finally falter in 2023.
What a run of recent races we've had in Formula 1. Rainy and unpredictable Zandvoort, super high-speed and dry Monza, and then the never-ending twists and turns in the humidity of Singapore. Three more different venues you'd struggle to find and we've witnessed hard racing from first to last place at all of them.
Carlos Sainz was the star in Monza in his Ferrari albeit only finishing third on that occasion, but in Singapore, he was the maestro from pole position to chequered flag. As he said, "I had the headspace and pace in the car to control the race". The way he decided to use Lando Norris's McLaren as a roadblock to two fast Mercedes closing in at a ridiculous rate, by slowing down to ensure Norris had the use of the rear wing DRS open, was as risky as it was brilliant.
The Ferrari strategy started from corner one when Sainz led and his team-mate Charles Leclerc, who started on the grippy racing line on the right-hand side of the grid on soft compound tyres, was able to seize second place from George Russell's impressive qualifying lap and front-row grid slot.
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The Ferraris could now protect their tyres at a relative snail's pace ensuring the whole pack of 19 starters stayed together which prevented drivers behind lunging for the pits to gain advantage on fresh tyres. Sometimes those kinds of races can develop into the calm before further calm as everybody manages their race, but the storm definitely arrived on Sunday evening and it was well worth waiting for.
It was the 14th Singapore Grand Prix and every previous race had been interrupted at least once by a Safety Car, although curiously never by a red-flag stoppage. As it's lined entirely by walls and protective fencing, without a complete service road as you'd find at permanent circuits, and with strategic but not particularly numerous service exits, a car or its discarded parts are highly likely to end up close to the racing line and need marshals and machines on the track to sort it out.
Over a quarter of these incidents in the past happened at four corners which no longer exist on the newly shortened layout, and given rain was not expected we wondered if this race might get a cleaner run.
However, Logan Seargent's trip into the wall on lap 19 would generate the first Safety Car to clear debris and this was good timing for those at the front to get a cheap stop, time-wise, and change tyres.
The problem for Ferrari was that they were running closely first and second and there's only one pit-stop rig per team. Leclerc backed up the pack to make some space, for which you have to be careful not to get a penalty for unfair impeding, and it looked to me that he overestimated what he had to do because he was quite a long way from his garage when Sainz departed. Then having to wait for others to pass by before being released cost him two places and pretty much ruined his race in terms of full potential.
Red Bull come unstuck on Marina Bay's streets
Red Bull had started from 11th and 13th after a miserable two days of running. The car which had stuck to the road like a gecko wading through superglue this season to date, suddenly looked almost undriveable. The team tried to find a car set-up over the bumps and specific circuit challenges with vertical stiffness and ride height changes, but if anything seemed to go the wrong way.
Quite how Max Verstappen didn't also get a penalty for impeding Yuki Tsunoda in qualifying when considering other penalties applied this season was a great surprise to many in the paddock, which I confidently predict includes the team and driver in question. That Tsunoda's Alpha Tauri team didn't send a representative to the hearing, albeit as the junior Red Bull team, was a sporting disappointment to me.
Having started on the hard compound tyres and holding station nicely the last thing Red Bull needed was a relatively early safety car. They simply had to stay out because no other tyre would get to the end without a further pit stop. Now they desperately needed another Safety Car but by lap 39, Perez's tyres had gone and Verstappen pitted a lap later. Just three laps after that, Esteban Ocon's Alpine ran out of drive and generated a Virtual Safety Car. It simply wasn't Red Bull's weekend.
Mercedes set up blistering finish
Tantalisingly the two Ferraris and the McLaren of Lando Norris stayed out, but both Mercedes were eager to grab the extra brand new set of medium compound tyres they'd strategically babysat to this point. It was perfect for them.
The Russell/Hamilton Mercedes train was setting a blistering pace and with 10 laps to go, I'd have put money on Russell winning. I'd have lost it.
They passed Leclerc's Ferrari easily enough and at the inevitable arrival onto the tail of Norris, they had to strike immediately. Russell almost got that done but not quite. It was helping Norris greatly by still being close enough to leader Sainz for a slipstream and to have the all-important DRS rear wing open which is worth an extra 13kph top speed and four tenths of a second per lap if open in all three zones there.
It was also clear that Mercedes' tyres were hot and bothered by such a scorching pace to close the gap, and they started to slide around.
Sainz and Norris played perfect 'team' game
Sainz and Norris tellingly only posted the seventh and eighth fastest laps of the race of 19 starters - the best part of two seconds slower than fastest man Hamilton followed by Russell. That pretty much sums up the race, especially the closing stages and the heroic defence by two 'team-mates' who were no longer in the same team. What a great story.
Had Russell made it past Norris on his first attempt, I'm pretty sure he would have won the race. I'd mentioned in commentary earlier that you can get mesmerised when following closely on a street circuit, a kind of trance fixated on the rear wing and gearbox of the car in front of you. A driver must ensure their own housekeeping with the fundamentals of braking, car placement and throttle application. The merest slip and you're in the wall and that sadly is what happened to Russell.
I never managed to win an F1 race and never had a car capable of multiple wins, but on a couple of occasions I could have stolen victory but it went wrong for various reasons. Thirty years later it still hurts, as that race will for George. He already has one victory, he'll get over it and his day will come but the pain will lurk and it somehow needs parking.
Lando must have the same mind gremlins from the three potential race victories which escaped him in 2021, especially as he was so close to victory here in Singapore too. His day will surely come.
Piastri, Lawson impress while Stroll crash shows safety gains
There were 19 cars on the grid because Lance Stroll had a nasty shunt in qualifying. Congratulations to F1, the FIA, the teams, the circuits, and the medical team for all their diligent safety work because during my time as a commentator let alone an F1 driver that was an unsurvivable crash. Hopefully he's fit and motivated for Suzuka.
And well done also to Oscar Piastri who gained 10 places, and Liam Lawson scoring his first points, seventh and ninth respectively, doing a great job for themselves and their teams, and also disproving a widely held theory in F1 that you can't take a risk on rookies, thank goodness.
If you've occasionally heard my commentary you will know that I've always been a fan of Carlos Sainz. Some of my F1 mates didn't agree with me, one even took a bet with me that Leclerc would dominate him (not yet paid). I rallied with his dad Carlos in the works Toyota team in Rally GB. In return, Carlos Senior had a run in Barcelona in our gorgeous Toyota GT One Le Mans car and was remarkably quick, but then I found out he'd been pounding round the track the week before in a single-seater. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail, and that's why he's a multiple world rally champion and Dakar winner, he's a competitive animal and very driven, but a very nice man, and apples don't fall far from the tree.
Sainz and Leclerc is a tremendous line-up now that Ferrari appear to be more on top of their car and strategies, along with other world-class pairings on the grid, which bodes well for the rest of the season even if Verstappen and Red Bull sew it up very early.
Experts very much in the know, who are not Red Bull personnel, told me that they don't believe the recent tidying up of aerodynamic technical directives had anything to do with Red Bull's struggles in Singapore. Actually Red Bull looked pretty handy in the race and so we await Suzuka in a few days' time to see if normal service is resumed.