Nico Hulkenberg’s unfortunate, and in the end, unavoidable first lap shunt aside, this year’s instalment of the usually abrasive Singapore Grand Prix was relatively incident free, but how did such a race generate so many a flashpoint? In truth, a processional race at the front was turned around in an instant by a change in strategy, that inadvertently changed the complexion of the race, raising a few pulses in the process.
Ferrari get it wrong
The Italian giants have seen a major downturn in performance from the enigmatic Maurizio Arrivabene’s barnstorming first year at the helm of the Scuderia; 2015 saw three wins - all for Sebastian Vettel - yet for the second time in three years, Maranello faces another winless year - something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.
Although a clever strategy, mixed with an efficient drive helped Vettel to a solid fifth place after starting from plumb last, the decision to bring Kimi Raikkonen in a lap after Lewis Hamilton was confusing. With a comfortable gap, better brakes and track position, Raikkonen looked to be on course for his fifth podium of the year, but a rash pit wall decision put paid to those hopes - Hamilton producing a blistering out lap on fresh supersofts to regain the third position he lost on lap 33.
Team principal Arrivabene defended the decision however, when questioned by Autosport. “To be 100% sure, you have to look at the data” the Italian claimed “If we were having huge degradation and Mercedes were taking us, it would have been crazy.”
All it means is that a fourth and fifth place finish was not good enough to help close the gap to Red Bull, who are now 15 points ahead, with both Raikkonen and Vettel’s championship charges effectively over for another year.
Verstappen had clutch issue
Speaking to Dutch television post-race, Max Verstappen explained his poor getaway, placing the blame on a faulty clutch. The teenager, who eventually finished in sixth after an eventful race, said that Red Bull knew about the issue, and informed FIA delegates. However, unless they were willing to start from the pitlane, the team were not permitted to change the faulty part.
The clutch problem led to Verstappen’s poor second launch phase at the start, an event that triggered Hulkenberg’s first lap accident - rightly deemed as an unfortunate racing incident.
Williams are slipping down the order
With Valtteri Bottas’ early retirement and Felipe Massa’s lowly twelfth placed finish, another uninspiring weekend for Williams went from bad to worse. Thought to have been hiding pace in both of Friday’s Free Practice sessions, an upturn in performance was expected from the Grove team on Saturday - but with both Bottas and Massa missing out on Qualifying 3, it never came.
It means that with Sergio Perez’ eighth place result, Force India inch further away in fourth position in the Constructors Championship.
Bottas - who retired on lap 37 in last place after struggling with seatbelt issues - was understandably downbeat post-race. Speaking to Sky Sports, the Finn conceded “It was a good chance to get good distance with Force India, but it wasn’t our day.”
Mercedes have trouble in Singapore, again
For the third year in a row, Mercedes hit reliability problems in Singapore, a track that has turned into a banana skin for them in recent years. Whilst they still managed to claim a 1-3 finish, both the eventual victor Nico Rosberg and Hamilton suffered with brake issues throughout the race, that needed serious management. Even on lap nine, Rosberg’s race engineer Tony Ross called the situation “critical” over the radio.
On the podium, Rosberg said “The whole car was on the edge, so it’s all the more satisfying.”
Although congratulatory towards Rosberg yesterday, Hamilton was dumbfounded over his troublesome weekend. “I had such a big problem with my brakes, it was unreal,” the champion bemoaned. “I had to drive so slow, and I couldn’t understand how the cars in front didn’t have to do the same.”
Much needed point for Renault
After ten races without a top ten finish, Renault finally earned their second point of the season, once again courtesy of Kevin Magnussen. Although both cars have been on for points finishes this season before issues, the French marque had failed to add on Magnussen’s seventh place finish in Russia, all of five months ago. The Dane ran well on Sunday after failing to make it into Qualifying 2, along with his team mate Jolyon Palmer, who had another difficult weekend, coming home ahead of both Manors and Marcus Ericsson in 15th.
Magnussen waxed lyrically over his “perfect race”, joking that it felt strange to drive that well and not win.
"I’m very happy for the whole team as this must be a boost for all of us.” said the 23-year-old, before adding: “To drive a race like this and not to win it; it feels strange because for me it felt perfect!”
The point should secure ninth place in the standings for Renault.
Headaches at Haas
After their early season success, Haas have problems on their hands, with one driver having problems and another driver causing problems. Whilst Romain Grosjean labelled the VF-16 as the “worst car [he’s] ever driven”, Esteban Gutierrez irked Mercedes boss Toto Wolff for his unwillingness to let leading cars through, on his way to yet another eleventh placed finish.
Speaking to Motorsport.com, Wolff moaned “Gutierrez at least makes it the same for everybody, he doesn't let anybody overtake.”
“We were shouting to Charlie [Whiting],” the Austrian added, “Felipe went out of the way and Esteban - who is a lovely boy - continued to cruise out there and was enjoying the gap he had made to Felipe."
Gutierrez came under heavy criticism in Hungary when he held Hamilton up, with the three-time World Champion not taking it too lightly when the Mexican finally surrendered.
Grosjean had a disastrous weekend, crashing in Free Practice 2, Qualifying and then did not manage to start the race. It is thought that his Qualifying accident and the problem on Sunday are both down to a faulty connection in the brake-by-wire system.
Kvyat back on song
After a woeful season that spiralled out of control after his podium in China, Daniil Kvyat made for a brighter face in the paddock this weekend.
His ninth placed finish was his first score since the British Grand Prix, and he cited this result as “mega”.
“I enjoyed it, I loved it again,” the Russian confessed “This racing is always a big test for my passion and I’m loving it again.”
Hamilton’s strategy call almost costs Mercedes
It turned out to be the catalyst for his podium finish, but Mercedes’ call to bring Hamilton into the pits for a final set of tyres as a last resort almost cost Rosberg the race.
Hamilton’s stop on lap 46 triggered a chain reaction, with Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo copying the decision in the succeeding laps. With Ricciardo on a fresh set of supersoft tyres, Rosberg’s 18 second lead was cut down by a rate of three seconds a lap by the Australian, in the end the gap was just under half a second at the flag.
Executive Director Paddy Lowe told Motorsport.com that the result could have been very different.
“On both sides of the garage we had some very close calls, some good strategic calls, and also some very good luck,” Lowe said. “We could easily be talking here about a second and a fourth, rather than a first and a third.”
Wolff followed this up by praising the racing that sport got out of the reactions.
“This is how it should be in Formula 1. Four really quick cars, different strategies and I must take my hat off to Red Bull as well.”
“At that moment, we concentrated on getting Lewis back to third,” the 44-year-old explained “But equally I think that Red Bull at that stage thought about pitting, it was there only chance.”
The Brackley outfit are within touching distance of their third successive Constructors’ Championship, and could - results dependant - seal the title in Malaysia in a fortnight’s time. If they accumulate just seven points more than closest challengers Red Bull, their monopoly of the first spell of the V6 hybrid era will be complete, with the chasing pack hoping that the shake up to the 2017 rulebook will provide a welcome change in proceedings.
Safety an issue
Even after the rigorous work going into further improving the incredible safety standards in Formula 1, the Singapore Grand Prix was nearly struck by what would have been an easily avoidable tragedy. At the end of lap three, when the Safety Car for Hulkenberg’s stricken Force India pulled into the pits, a marshal was on the start-finish straight picking up some debris from Jenson Button’s front wing, and only just avoided being hit by Rosberg’s Mercedes as it resumed to full speed. A frightening moment indeed, race director Charlie Whiting may come under the microscope for returning to green flag conditions without the track being clear of debris and personnel.