Martin Brundle on the twists and turns of an unusual Singapore GP
What to make of all that then under the lights of Singapore? Martin Brundle reflects on an unusual race, Vettel's return to the top step, and what Ferrari's revival means for Mercedes
Last Updated: 25/09/19 6:34am
What a strange race.
Ferrari score their first one-two since 2017 and their first hat-trick of victories since 2008 yet both drivers were subdued, and Max Verstappen took the final podium spot just 3.8 seconds behind the winner after two hours, beating both Mercedes, but expected much more from this event and so leaving him concerned about the rest of the season.
That the driver who delivered the fastest lap, for the second year in succession Kevin Magnussen, finished as the last runner having also collected a plastic bag in his aero furniture rather sums it all up. As does the fact that the safety car was four laps away from running out of fuel and needing the back-up, such was its usage.
And the great irony is that Seb Vettel's small errors in final qualifying confining him to a very disappointing third on the grid actually won him the race…
In the first phase of the race, pole-sitter Charles Leclerc dutifully backed the pack up at a pace which largely prevented those behind him finding a window in the traffic to pit early and 'undercut' him with faster pace on fresh tyres. I say largely because the only driver who achieved such a feat was his own team-mate, Vettel.
It confuses me as to why Mercedes and Red Bull didn't apply pressure on Leclerc with at least one car to take away his ability to suppress their options. It doesn't wash that you can't follow or overtake because behind them for the full two hours half the pack were lunging past and taking bites out of each other on a regular basis. They were nose-to-tail, side-by-side and indeed wearing each other's cars on many occasions.
Furthermore when Leclerc, Vettel, Verstappen, Hamilton and Bottas had to clear traffic which was running longer on more durable tyres after their pit stops, punchy overtakes were indeed witnessed, albeit with fast cars on fresh rubber.
That did though give us a taste of what to look forward to if F1 introduces a few reverse championship position grids for Saturday qualifying races at appropriate circuits next year.
But in this race it was if they were all diligently following a computer model rather than disrupting on a counter strategy. Hamilton spotted that and called on the radio for an 'undercut' to be first of the front runners to pit which actually would have worked a treat and likely won him the race.
It also confused me when (the increasingly impressive) Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said after the race that you wouldn't pit the leader first. True enough there's nobody to undercut, but you have to defend too.
You don't want to pit too early and run out of tyres before the end of the race, but such was the slow pace up front and the grip of a new set of Pirellis driven with great urgency on the out-lap, the undercut was supremely powerful on the night.
The problem in Singapore is that the pit-lane speed limit is reduced to 40 mph (60kph) and it's quite long considering the in and out zones too, meaning a 27-second minimum loss, on a street circuit where overtaking is more challenging. It's normally around the 20/22-second mark.
This also means it's worth hanging on to the bitter end for the seemingly inevitable safety car when you lose 10/12 seconds less whilst your rivals are circulating at a slower pace, thereby leapfrogging some or even many cars.
It feels to me that this pit lane would take the normal 80kph. Furthermore, there's no reason why Monaco should be reduced to a 260-kilometer race due to its slow average speed, and leave Singapore at the usual 300+. Both of these changes would energise this event.
Track position is king especially here and so this favours one stopping and tyre management. I'm still wincing at Lewis's radio comment 'guys I can't go any slower'. That won't feature in the end of season reviews.
Ferrari played a blinder with Vettel's strategy when they saw at least a little track space to drop him back into after a pit stop. It was to defend against the real threat of undercut from Verstappen and Red Bull, and to hopefully ease him past Hamilton. It was so impressive from both team and driver that it controversially put him into the lead ahead of his team-mate Leclerc, who pitted a lap later.
Young Charlie was understandably less than impressed with this. He'd been dutifully following team instruction and strategy to keep the pack at bay with pedestrian initial pace, and now he'd lost the lead to his team-mate who wasn't even in his mirrors prior to that.
Clearly Ferrari don't have the power, or maybe desire, to swap their drivers around in such circumstances, such as we would witness a few laps later when Mercedes checked Bottas up to keep him behind Hamilton. I'm not sure Vettel would have listened anyway.
After a miserable run and being denied victory in Canada, Seb really needed this win. It was his fifth at this most challenging of races and that's truly impressive.
He took a few risks in traffic and had a near miss when passing Pierre Gasly, but he drove very well all weekend. However, it really was Leclerc's race, hence the glum podium.
It is indisputable that Ferrari turned a one-three into a one-two for the team.
If Mercedes played a blinder to win the Hungarian GP they got this one wrong to finish with both cars off the podium altogether.
They failed to pit early enough and basically took two risks with Hamilton which were out of their direct control. Firstly, that the Ferraris and Verstappen would get held up in traffic after their stops, and secondly that the same gang would run out of tyres before the end of the race. Three tyre-saving safety car periods put paid to that hope.
This is the first time Merc have been consistently under pressure in the hybrid era which commenced in 2014. Ferrari's engine power is getting them out front and generating the ability to control races on any type of circuit layout.
Mercedes had the pace to win Monza and Singapore but couldn't deploy it, which is reassuring for them in that respect. What a battle this would have been if Ferrari had converted chances earlier in the season.
Elsewhere the racing was great with some standout performances from Lando Norris at McLaren and Antonio Giovinazzi for Alfa Romeo who even led the race for a few laps in the pit-stop phase.
And Pierre Gasly looks a new man again now that he's back at Toro Rosso and out of the pressure spotlight. Top level sport is always about the head as much as anything else.
The midfield battles were epic and the 'let them race' concept is working, even if it's really on the limit. F1 is all about being on the limit, although I felt Romain Grosjean was lucky not to receive a penalty in his tangle with George Russell. I know many fans thought Kvyat's first corner lunge on Raikkonen was out of order, but it wasn't, and both drivers said so in the stewards' office.
It's funny, I've whizzed through 1200+ words for this column very easily and quickly, maybe it was a more interesting race than I first thought.