Conclusions from the 2014 Singapore GP
Lewis has to win an easy race the hard way, Mercedes in danger of losing to public opinion, and when safety becomes dangerous...
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 23/09/14 8:58am
The world turns for the better for Hamilton
With 150 points still to play for, Lewis Hamilton leads the Drivers’ World Championship by a mere three. But somehow it feels more than that. The tide has turned; from down and nearly out two races ago, Hamilton has acquired not only the lead but, just as valuably, the momentum. The doubts of Spa that “this might not be my year” have already faded to a distant memory. The doyens of Fleet Street won’t be lonely in concluding that the force is now with Hamilton.
It helps, of course, when your lead rival is crippled off the line, an electronics glitch rendering Nico Rosberg’s malfunctioning Mercedes as slow as a Caterham and underlining the recklessness of the FIA’s aborted attempt to ban radio messages on car performance. “It would have been a hard-core race if Nico was still in the race,” Hamilton acknowledged after his victory, but not before reminding all and sundry that he has still suffered the majority of Mercedes’ unreliability this season. Some memories are never going to fade.
Hamilton, one suspects, is still spoiling for a proper fight with his team-mate. The racer’s instincts that courses through his veins was abundant at Monza two weeks ago when he ignored the advice of his race crew to bide his time behind Rosberg before launching a late attack, and equally evident this Sunday when he tore past Sebastian Vettel at the first half-opportunity when a more cautious driver would have waited for the Red Bull to reach the proverbial cliff. That’s the type of driver he is and that’s why his lament about the reduced “intensity” of Sunday’s race following Rosberg’s retirement was, in spite of the advantage accrued from Nico's misfortune, absolutely genuine. Easy victories are not in his nature.
Not that there was anything especially easy about Sunday’s win once the mid-race appearance of the Safety Car and its subsequent fifteen minutes of tedium had wiped out Hamilton’s advantage and cast the remaining twenty laps as a classic contest between the tortoises and the lone hare.
Hammertime has never been so spectacular or well timed as the laps ran down and Hamilton, forever fretting over the state of his tyres, sprinted his advantage above and beyond the critical twenty-five seconds mark. F1 always works when it is played out with two vastly different tyre performances and degradation becomes an increasingly prevalent factor. But the critical ingredient, upon which the entire spectacle hinges, is a driver willing and wanting to play catch-up and play offensively on the frontfoot. Note the lack of drama the defensive Alonso-Ricciardo-Vettel train produced despite the trio all sharing the same section of track for lap after lap with just a second or so between them.
Hammertime was just the trick for him and us.
Mercedes run out of excuses
For a team which has such a vast performance advantage, Mercedes are making remarkably hard work of 2014. Four DNFs – plus two mechanical failures for Hamilton in qualifying before the summer break – have besmirched a campaign that had the potential to be a walkover. Given the W05's superiority, it is scarcely believable that Daniel Ricciardo remains a realistic title contender, but the fact of the matter is that the Red Bull is still just 60 points adrift with 50 on offer in the Abu Double season finale. He could still do it.
But probably not. Red Bull’s refusal to order Vettel aside in order to let Ricciardo through for an additional handful of points gave the game away about how unlikely they regard the Aussie’s title prospects. Which just leaves Mercedes in the spotlight and the pressure exclusively thrust on the team to ensure that this year’s title is decided on merit rather than through mechanical failure. The team’s reputation is in profit this year, massively so after delivering a missile of a car, but any more failures are unlikely to be tolerated in the all-important court of public opinion.
When safety becomes dangerous to the spectacle
Seven laps and fifteen minutes of the Singapore GP were spent behind the Safety Car. While the decision of Race Control to deploy the pace car to clear up the debris from Sergio Perez’s squashed front-wing is not for us to argue with, surely questions can be legitimately asked why the delay was so prolonged and why the lapped cars were requested to run round the entire circuit to reach the back of the field. Why not simply ask them to pull aside for a corner or two, letting the rest of the field through in the process, before rejoining at the back? Because of the extra delay waiting for the slowest cars in the field to unlap themselves, a race which ought to have been 61 laps long had to be reduced to 60, an avoidable alteration which, as we saw with Valtteri Bottas’ collapse and Jean-Eric Vergne’s last-lap surge, could have given us a very different result.
The gang of three
The problem with talk of three-car teams in F1 next year isn’t that number but the precursor that there would only be eight teams in existence. Regardless of the extent of the financial travails at the back of the grid, is it not incredibly disrespectful to the likes of Marussia, Caterham, Lotus and Sauber – the four likely lads to drop out – for the sport to be openly discussing their demise when they are all still in existence and all insisting they’ll still be in existence next year as well?
Three-car teams may well be preferable to three pointless – metaphorically and literally – outfits at the back. But these teams have been welcomed into the fold, signed commercial deals to be part of F1, and deserve to be respected. That respect may not stretch to equal status, but nor should it shrivel to having their obituaries written when they are alive and kicking.
Vergne makes his case
For Jean-Eric Vergne, crime pays. Despite being hit with two penalties during Sunday’s race, the grand prix ended with the Frenchman – still 24, lest we forget – celebrating a well-deserved sixth place and what may prove to be a career-saving drive. Perversely, the five-second penalty to be added on to Vergne’s final race count may have actually saved the Toro Rosso driver time in the final reckoning, inspiring him to throw caution to the wind as he launched a series of aggressive moves in the final stages before finishing the race with a lap of 1:54.330 – five seconds faster than the last lap of team-mate Daniil Kvyat.
As there’s nothing in the new radio regulations outlawing telling porkies, perhaps Toro Rosso should try telling Vergne he’s facing a retrospective five-second penalty in Japan regardless of whether it’s true or not.
Alonso waits his turn
It was worth a shot but with McLaren confirming they have no plans to make a driver announcement at Suzuka then it’s fair to deduce their pursuit of Fernando Alonso has come to naught. Honda, owners of Suzuka, will just have to return to F1 in 2015 without a box-office name behind their wheel – although Jenson Button, a fans’ favourite in Japan and a former World Champion, is hardly a small name, and Kevin Magnussen has plenty of time still on his side to emerge as a major player in the sport.
Alonso is nobody’s fool and it would be a gamble of gargantuan proportions for him to transfer to an untested McLaren-Honda package. The sensible decision is to wait and see how the McLaren-Honda reunion performs next year while hoping that the first James Allison creation takes Ferrari back to the front in 2015. And sensible is Alonso's smartest move. As his next contract will almost certainly be the last he signs in F1, Fernando can’t make a mistake – or take the gamble that McLaren are believed to have invited. But there’s a risk in Alonso’s procrastination too; if the Honda-McLaren package is quick out of the blocks next winter, a queue, potentially including Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, will quickly form outside Ron Dennis’ office. Alonso is still holding all the cards, but the real trick is showing them when it matters most.