F1: Round 15 – Singapore – Sep 28

Fairy tale venue, fantasy podium, nightmare day for Ferrari – all made for a dream début for Singapore and for night racing in Formula 1.

The circuit looked terrific, and Formula 1 cars have never looked better than they did here under the floodlights. Sparks flew, brakes glowed, and you could see it all as the cars bounced over the street track. Even the epic race length (nearly two hours when some of the traditional F1 Grand Prix races barely make it to 90 minutes anymore) put you more in mind of the golden age of motor racing.

A the ribbon of light dramatically threading its way against the pitch black of night, the Singapore street circuit is packed full of the kind of landmarks that make it an instant classic: from the 99-year-old Anderson bridge, so the tunnel going directly underneath the most immense grandstand you’ve ever seen, the track criss-crossed overhead by busy freeways and all based around Singapore’s marina with towering skyscrapers and with a backdrop of old colonial buildings artfully spotlight, this is a venue that gives even Monaco a run for its money in terms of spectacle and glamour. Indeed, Singapore may well finally be the place that takes away Monaco’s title as jewel in the F1 crowd, because this will take some beating.

In fact comparisons with Monaco are very apt. That race always sees problems with cars stuck in long queues behind slower cars (check), unforgiving concrete barriers (check, top runners making a split second mistake that ends their race (check) and wildly unpredictable results. (double check.)

Actually, you wouldn’t have thought it form the first 15 laps. Felipe Massa roared away from pole to take the lead, while Lewis Hamilton went aggressively defensive to stop Kimi Raikkonen  getting advantage form being on the ‘fast’ side of the track. Actually, Lewis got such a good start and Kimi such a sluggish one that the tactic was hardly necessary.

But behind them, Lewis’s team mate Heikki Kovalainen could have done with some help: he got barged by Robert Kubica in the first turns, and as a result of having to slow up he lost two spots to Sebastien Vettel and Timo Glock to run 7th.

Fernando Alonso was gambling on an ultra-light fuel load and the super soft tyres to make some early gains. He made up three spots to run 12th on the first lap, but there is ended: he was now stuck in a slow moving train of cars all following Jarno Trulli who had clearly opted for a heavy fuel load and was running a whopping 5s a lap slower than Massa at the front. Alonso finally got past Trulli on lap 9 but the damage was done, because his tyres were cooked and his fuel was out on lap 13. Admitting that the strategy wasn’t working, the team fuelled for a long second stint and prepared for the worst.

It had been worth taking a gamble on something different, but Alonso had already bemoaned the fuel line breakage in qualifying that had ruined his chances: “The race is over for us, finish,” he had said an hour before the start. Which just goes to show that Fernando doesn’t have much of a budding career as a fortune teller ahead of him anytime soon.

Up front, it was becoming clear that Hamilton didn’t have the pace to keep up with Massa; and that moreover Raikkonen was shrugging off his early sluggishness and catching fast. It was hard to avoid the feeling that this was going to be a fine 1-2 for Ferrari, and another depressing exercise in damage limitation for McLaren.

At which point, Nelson Piquet lost the backend of his Renault coming out of turn 17 on lap 15, and slammed into one of the concrete walls making a horrible mess – but despite the damage, he was fine. Still, this was going to take some cleaning up and it wasn’t going to be possible under yellows, so a full safety car caution was called.

And at this point, things went … Well, interesting is too bland a word. Basically, things went berserk.

Firstly, the Red Bull cars of Mark Webber and David Coulthard hit the pits before the race officials threw the full course yellow. Once the caution came out, the pits were closed to anyone else, making their split second decision a work of pure genius. Not so lucky were Nico Rosberg in the Williams and Robert Kubica in the BMW, both of whom urgently had to pit or risk grinding to a halt: so they had to come in regardless of the ‘closed’ flag, knowing that it would incur a ten-second pit stop penalty. Better that than retirement – it was the right call.

The pit lane was finally open on lap 17 and Massa and Hamilton were mighty relieved to have been able to eke out their marginal fuel long enough. They came in for their stops: and then it went horribly wrong for Massa. Ferrari use a red/green light hi-tech system to tell the driver when to pull away, rather than the old system of a lollipop man giving the signal. The green light flickered on – briefly – and Massa pulled away. Unfortunately the refuelling was no where near done and the nozzle was still locked in place. The hose snapped into the pit crew, bowling them over like skittles, before tearing off the tank: Massa was dragging a ten foot section of refuelling rig down the pit lane. All he could do was get to the end and pull to one side, and sit there until his crew could sprint down the entire length of the pits to remove it, which took some doing after the damage it had taken.

Oh, but the delights for Ferrari were not finished there. Raikkonen had been queuing behind Massa in the pits while this disaster unfolded and also haemorrhaged a bunch of places. And then Massa, already running pretty much dead last, was handed a drive-thru penalty after it was judged that his prematurely release had put him out of the pit box right in front of another car.

With both Ferraris badly hit by the pit stops, you’d think that Lewis Hamilton would have inherited a nice and easy win. But that was anything but the case: he was now in 7th and looking anything but secure a top spot. Ahead were Nico Rosburg in 1st (from stopping before the pit lane was opened), then Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella (in 2nd and 3rd) both on one-stoppers and not ready to pit yet; then Kubica (who like Rosburg was facing a certain penalty); then Alonso who had made his stop before the yellow and been at the back of the field until the caution; then the two Red Bulls that had correctly predicted the yellows. That made for a very crowded view ahead of Hamilton’s McLaren.

Racing resumed on lap 20, and Rosburg was told to push for all he was worth. Although he would have the penalty to serve, he had one chance: to pull out such a massive lead over everyone else that he could come in, stop for the 10s penalty, and still make it out on track in a good position. And it was playing into his hands, because Giancarlo Fisichella’s Force India in 3rd place was holding everyone behind him up.

The difference Fisichella made to the race can be show this was: when Rosburg finally came in for his penalty and exited, he came out ahead of Coulthard and, critically, Hamilton. And shortly all of them were past Mark Webber, who suffered technical failure on lap 29. Whereas Kubica – who had the same penalty but who had been stuck behind Fisichella – ended up 18th behind Massa. His race was cooked, but Rosburg’s wa still very much in the making.

Trulli pitted – from the lead! – on lap 33 and Fisichella pitted slightly earlier on lap 29. Which meant that when all the chaos form the safety car period was shaken out, the driver in the lead of the Singapore grand Prix was none other than … Fernando Alonso. Race over, huh, Fernando? We think not!

But the race was certainly over for Felipe Massa, who on lap 32 had to make an emergency visit to the pits – the car was virtually out of fuel after the botched first stop. They fuelled it to the brim to get to the end, but all hope and zest was lost by the Brazilian at this point.

By lap 36, Alonso was leading Rosberg by 4.9s, who led David Coulthard by 7.4s. The Red Bull was badly holding up Hamilton, who was seeing any chance of catching his former team mate and bitter rival for the lead disappearing with every lap.

Alonso was charging and setting incredible times. The team was yelling down th radio for him to slow up, not to panic, he had plenty of time. But the Spaniard was set on “maximum throttle” and was stopping for nothing. When he finally came in for his last pit stop of the day on lap 43, he had stretched out such a huge lead that he emerged on track right ahead of the Coulthard/Hamilton battle.

Actually this unwittingly helped Lewis: distracted by the Renault, Coulthard failed to cover the inside line into turn 7 and Hamilton muscled his way past. Although both cars pitted immediately thereafter, Hamilton’s move ensured that he would have exited ahead of the Red Bull, even if Coulthard hadn’t jerked the car away prematurely while still being refuelled. Another bungled pit stop of the day, and a second unfortunate mechanic stretched to the medical centre.

Once all the pit stops were done, it looked set to be Alonso, Rosburg and Hamilton on the podium. Even a late second safety car period on lap 50 didn’t upset this: Adrian Sutil pit his car into the barriers at turn 17, himself avoiding a spin by Felipe Massa. Any chance that Jarno Trulli would compete for the top spots ended at the same time when his car failed out on track.

Kimi Raikkonen was carrying Maranello’s colours now, battling for fourth against Trulli’s team mate Timo Glock. But a moment’s carelessness across the notorious turn 10 chicane curbs destabilised the car on lap 57, and he smashed into the wall incurring heavy damage. His race was done, and when he climbed out he looked dejected – and exhausted. This long, long race in stultifying conditions (even at night) was taking its toll.

Even Hamilton had settled for the status quo, and had nothing left. The race duly finished with Alonso as winner, Rosburg in second and Hamilton relieved to take third place, knowing that his main Ferrari and BMW title contenders had all completely failed to score. Only Nick Heidfeld in 6th managed to finish in the points.

But – what a race. It was genuinely compelling and exciting throughout, and totally unpredictable, one of those rare times when you really, really don’t want the rain to come and spoil things – and how often can you say that, in a series where sometimes rain is the only thing that injects any unpredictability?  We need more Formula 1 Grand Prix races like this. Although I might need some valium refills if they were ALL like this!

Race result:

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Alonso        Renault               (B)  1h57:16.304
 2.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota       (B)  +     2.957
 3.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +     5.917
 4.  Glock         Toyota                (B)  +     8.155
 5.  Vettel        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +    10.268
 6.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber            (B)  +    11.101
 7.  Coulthard     Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +    16.387
 8.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota       (B)  +    18.489
 9.  Button        Honda                 (B)  +    19.885
10.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +    26.902
11.  Kubica        BMW Sauber            (B)  +    27.975
12.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +    29.432
13.  Massa         Ferrari               (B)  +    35.170
14.  Fisichella    Force India-Ferrari   (B)  +    43.571
15.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               (B)  +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Raikkonen, 1:45.599

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Trulli        Toyota                (B)    51
Sutil         Force India-Ferrari   (B)    50
Webber        Red Bull-Renault      (B)    30
Barrichello   Honda                 (B)    15
Piquet        Renault               (B)    14

World Championship standings, round 15:

Drivers:                    Constructors:            
 1.  Hamilton      84        1.  McLaren-Mercedes      135
 2.  Massa         77        2.  Ferrari               134
 3.  Kubica        64        3.  BMW Sauber            120
 4.  Raikkonen     57        4.  Renault                51
 5.  Heidfeld      56        5.  Toyota                 46
 6.  Kovalainen    51        6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     31
 7.  Alonso        38        7.  Red Bull-Renault       28
 8.  Vettel        27        8.  Williams-Toyota        26
 9.  Trulli        26        9.  Honda                  14
10.  Glock         20      
11.  Webber        20      
12.  Rosberg       17      
13.  Piquet        13      
14.  Barrichello   11      
15.  Nakajima       9      
16.  Coulthard      8      
17.  Bourdais       4      
18.  Button         3
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