Singapore GP winners and losers
Nico Rosberg has never been better and Lewis Hamilton has never been made to look so ordinary by his team-mate. Game on...
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 19/09/16 3:45pm
He's never been better and he's never had a better chance of winning the world championship.
Although Rosberg also held the lead of the title race this time two years ago, the difference then was that cracks had already started to appear - remember those lock-ups at Monza? - and it was his team-mate who had form and momentum on his side.
But with six races to go in 2016, it's Rosberg who has the upper hand on all counts. He is also changing for the better. "Nico is driving on a different level to what he has done before," concluded Sky F1's Damon Hill on Sunday night. "I've known Nico since 2013 and that is the best Nico Rosberg I have ever seen throughout the weekend since then," concurred Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
This was Rosberg's 200th grand prix. Opinions about his calibre and status have inevitably become entrenched during that time. But it was possible over the weekend to detect a shift in attitude towards the German: a softening of the familiar incredulity to the notion he is truly part of the elite towards a mellowing acceptance he deserves this opportunity and he really can win the title - and not just win it, but win it on merit too.
This, after all, was Rosberg's third win in succession as he turned around a 19-point summer deficit into an eight-point lead over Lewis Hamilton. But it was not so much his win on Sunday which will have quelled the scepticism but his blistering lap in qualifying on Saturday which defeated Hamilton, the recognised fastest driver in F1, by over half a second.
Never before had Rosberg inflicted such a heavy defeat on his team-mate in qualifying. Never before has Rosberg looked as good as he did this weekend. Never before has his time seemed like now.
Nearly there again: the Silver Arrows will be crowned Constructors' champions for a third successive year if they aren't outscored by Red Bull by eight points in Malaysia and by 23 by Ferrari. Start ordering the champagne then.
The fire and talent still burns bright with nuclear intensity. By the standards of a world champion, seventh was a modest finish in Singapore, but it was as much as any driver could have achieved.
Their cause was aided and abetted by the first-lap demise of Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg, the two likeliest opponents in the battle for seventh, but after targeting being the best of the rest behind the two Mercedes, two Ferrari and two Red Bulls in Singapore that's exactly where McLaren ended up at the chequered flag - due, in the main, to a driver whose talent is equal to any other in the field.
The most important tenth place of the year so far? It only garnered a single point but it's a result which may be sufficient to keep Magnussen's seat at Renault in 2017. At the very least, it all-but ends the debate about which of their current drivers Renault should keep for next season if, as is reasonable to assume, their final choice for 2017 boils down to a choice between Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer. Only something extraordinary in the final third of 2016 can save the Englishman now.
Three months ago, Red Bull boss Christian Horner gave a one-word answer when asked to predict the Drivers' World Championship in 2017: "Ricciardo". Watch a re-run of the Singapore GP and there's why.
A winner and a loser in Singapore. His best chance of winning a race in 2016 has come and gone but the Ferrari driver's surge from last to fifth was his race of the year.
In the points for only the third time since departing Red Bull for a demotion at Toro Rosso and as it's been so long since we've seen him smile perhaps now is not the time to mention he was out-qualified by three tenths by Carlos Sainz.
In the season which can't make up its mind on the title race, it's Hamilton who has all the thinking to do with six races to go. The world champion, 19 points ahead a month ago, has no reason to panic - eight points in the context of 150 remaining on the table is a trifle - but the manner of his defeat this weekend in Singapore ought to give him pause for thought.
He may not enjoy the memory. Hamilton's weekend was littered with mistakes. He was off the track in practice. He was off the track in qualifying. He was off the track in race. While his team-mate delivered a career high, Hamilton slumped to an ugly low which was at once both unnerving and oddly familiar.
The peaks are far greater in scale and quantity to the troughs, but Hamilton has weekends like this. Always has and probably always will. He was all over the place in Baku three months ago. In his final year at McLaren he was absolutely thumped by Jenson Button in Belgium. Even Heikki Kovalainen once out-qualified him by over half a second.
Does he get distracted? Does he lose concentration? Are the lows the cheap price that have to be paid for the capacity to reach such awesome highs? Whatever the explanation, Hamilton can ill-afford a repeat this year.
"If that's the worst weekend of the year," Hamilton mused on Sunday night, "I'll definitely take it." Fair point, but it was an assessment which under-estimated the relentless consistency of his opponent. Rosberg's game plan this year can be succinctly distilled as waiting for Hamilton to make a mistake and capatilsing whenever he does.
If so, it's working.
Had the season started when he moved to Red Bull in the middle of May, Verstappen would currently be trailing Ricciardo 143-116 in points.
Strategy is an easy game to play with the 20-20 vision of hindsight but even at the very instant Ferrari, responding to Mercedes switching Hamilton to 'Plan B', called in Raikkonen on lap 46, it felt like a mistake. And so it proved: the trap had been set and Ferrari fell straight into it.
Not for the first time this year, their strategists had erred and erred badly. Mistakes happen but this wasn't so much a mistake as an aberration. Rosberg finished the race on soft tyres which were 28 laps old. When he was called in, Raikkonen had been on his set of softs for a mere 13. He then put on a used set of ultrasofts which were required to run for 15. Whatever way you looked at it, and whenever you did, it made no sense.
Behind Force India again in the Constructors' Championship. It's a battle which has see-sawed for several weeks: Force India went into the lead in Belgium, Williams regained the initiative in Italy, before Sergio Perez's eighth place this weekend put Force India a point ahead. Perhaps a decisive result - one podium score may well be enough - will occur in October with power-centric Suzuka the obvious contender. But the likelihood is that this particular scrap will go right down to the wire.
For Williams, the season must be beginning to crawl. Bottas currently looks like their only driver currently capable of bringing home a substantial number of points and the team haven't scored more than ten at a single event in the last nine races.
If ever there was a weekend to forget: a crash in qualifying, a race which Grosjean didn't even start because of a transmission failure, and a car so unresponsive in practice that the Frenchman was heard to complain over the radio "this is the worst car I've driven in a long, long time." Barring a sudden turnaround in form, the end of the season may feel like an eternity to Grosjean as well.
Is there a way out? Contrary to reports, Haas haven't officially confirmed one of their drivers for next season. And even if these litigious time contracts can be ripped up if both parties are mutually disenchanted. Haas are surely not enjoying Grosjean's feedback any more than Grosjean is enjoying Haas. As Renault continue do dither in the driver market, could a return for Grosjean - one of only two Frenchmen on the grid and whose lessons in Italian now seem a wasted effort - be entirely out of the question?
3-0 down to Pascal Wehrlein in qualifying and the only driver two laps down on race day. There's ample mitigation, of course. The youngster has been thrown in at the deep end halfway through the season, and it must be harder to acclimatise to a poor car than, Verstappen-style, learn the subtleties of a good car. And on Sunday, the mammoth size of Ocon's deficit to the race leaders was due in ample part to two botched pit-stops. But F1 is an unforgiving business and those big-picture mitigations will start to wear threadbare by the end of the season. The 20-year-old has plenty to do and prove over the next two months.
So near and, so often in 2016, yet so far: Singapore was the fifth time this year that Gutierrez, who last scored a point in F1 in 2013, has finished 11th.
Don't miss the F1 Report for all the reaction and analysis from the Singapore GP. F1 technical expert Craig Scarborough joins Natalie Pinkham and Marc Priestley in the studio at 8:30pm on Wednesday on Sky Sports F1.