F1: Round 14 – Night race, Singapore – 27 September

It may present a visually stunning backdrop, and racing under floodlights is a unique thrill, but the problem with Singapore is that it’s a street circuit – and one without any real overtaking possibilities. It means the race is going to be mainly processional, a test of technical durability and of drivers not making any errors; but fortunately for viewers, there were plenty of problems with both the latter areas.

The race always looked to be Lewis Hamilton’s to lose (along the lines of how he had thrown away a top position in Monza) after he took pole position with a decent amount of fuel on board. Nor did he fail on the starting line, getting away perfectly from the grid while Sebastian Vettel on the dirty side of the track struggled and lost a place to Nico Rosberg.

Hamilton was by no means able to get away from Vettel and Rosberg, and had brief problems with his KERS system (fixed by turning it off and on again …) but mistakes by both of his main rivals would eliminate them as threats to his prospects for the win: Rosberg managed to overcook his exit from the first pit stop on lap 19 and hurtle over the white blend line, incurring a drive-thru penalty that left him at the back of the field; while Vettel was penalised for exceeding the pit lane speed limit in the second round of stops on lap 40.

Mark Webber should have been able to capitalise on these misfortunes, but his race went from bad to worse. In the first lap he found himself passed by Fernando Alonso; he managed to re-take the Spaniard a few moments later into turn 7, but only by running completely off the designated track and the marshals were not happy and ordered him to return the position to Alonso. Worse, Timo Glock had in the meantime used the opportunity of Webber and Alonso’s tussle to get past Alonso and so the order to allow Alonso past de facto also meant letting Glock past. It was not the best start to the day, and nor would it be the best end: in the closing third of the race the Red Bull started showing increasing signs of extreme brake wear, with clouds of carbon dust billowing out of the front right brake duct as he came in for his second stop on lap 46. The team crossed their fingers that clearing out the brakes had fixed the problem sufficiently to get the Aussie to the end … only to see Webber’s brake fail completely on the very next lap and for him to spin out backwards into the barrier.

The marshals managed to avoid a safety car period this time around; there had been a lengthy four lap period behind the safety car after an incident on lap 22: Adrian Sutil had been getting frustrated stuck being the horribly slow Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari for lap after lap and tried a rather limp challenge up the inside that only succeeded in tipping him into a spin. Then worse still, he attempted to spin around and to rejoin the race as Nick Heidfeld was coming past – and ended up ramming into the side of the BMW. Both cars would retire from the damage, and the amount of carbon fibre strewn on the track required the safety car’s attendance.

The safety car in fact played a critical role in the key championship battle. Jenson Button had been fuelled heavy, intending to come in later than almost everyone else when the field was strung out, using his final laps when light on fuel to leap frog the early stoppers. But with the field closed up after the safety car, Button had little such opportunity and he would find that the next stint of the race would be spent in 7th stuck behind the McLaren of Heikki Kovalainen.

Ironically it was the subsequent incident involving Webber’s crash in which a safety car was not required that gave Button the advantage back: many drivers assumed that the safety car was inevitable and dived for the pits – Kovalainen among them – but Button stuck it out on track. He was rewarded for the correct call with some blistering fast laps, and when he came back out on track after this final fuel stop he found himself on target for 5th, just behind Vettel (recovering from his penalty) and crucially just ahead of Rubens Barrichello and Kovalainen: the three drivers still in the world championship were running sequentially on track.

It looked set for a thrilling finish, and Button was the one on the pace and gaining fast on Vettel, whose car was starting to fall apart after a rough ride across the kerb at turn 5 on lap 42 just after his pit stop. But those blisteringly fast laps had taken their toll on the Brawn, and Button’s own front right brakes were showing the same alarming signs of imminent brake failure that Mark Webber’s ed Bull had done just before he crashed out. Ross Brawn issued Jenson the instruction to save the brakes at all costs, and Jenson – dutiful as ever – complied, easing back to the point where Barrichello was able to make up nearly ten seconds on him in under three laps. Barrichello’s brakes were also proving a concern, but when told this – and that Jenson had similar problems – Rubens’ only question was about how far ahead Jenson was and could he catch him?

But Button had done what was necessary and finished just ahead of his team mate and nearest title challenger – extending his championship lead by one point despite a “disastrous” qualifying, in Brawn’s own words – in what is possibly the single most pivotal moment of the championship.

Brakes figured large in the fortunes of the other drivers too, with Alguersuari retiring from brake failure (and his team mate Sebastien Buemi with gearbox failure) and Romain Grosjean only making four laps before soaring brake temperatures resulted in him getting called into retirement in the garage.

At least his team mate Alonso had a good day, riding that first lap battle with Glock and Webber all the way to third place. But Glock finished one ahead in second, and looked thoroughly delighted with a brilliant performance just when Toyota needed it most to justify their remaining in F1.

And of course, happiest man of all was Lewis Hamilton, easily on the top spot again after his embarrassing and costly mistake in Monza, and bouncing around like Tigger in celebration. McLaren had feared at one point that they miht be winless in 2009, but seem to be rallying strongly and setting themselves up as one of the favourites for 2010; whereas the less said about Ferrari the better (Kimi Raikkonen a depressing 10th – has he already been given notice by the team? – and Giancarlo Fisichella still struggling with the transition to Maranello in 13th).

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                    Time
 1.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        1h56:06.337
 2.  Glock         Toyota                  +     9.634
 3.  Alonso        Renault                 +    16.624
 4.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        +    20.261
 5.  Button        Brawn-Mercedes          +    30.015
 6.  Barrichello   Brawn-Mercedes          +    31.858
 7.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +    36.157
 8.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +    55.054
 9.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +    56.054
10.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +    58.892
11.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +    59.777
12.  Trulli        Toyota                  +  1:13.009
13.  Fisichella    Ferrari                 +  1:19.890
14.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes    +  1:33.502

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:48.240

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                  On lap
Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari        48
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari        48
Webber        Red Bull-Renault          46
Sutil         Force India-Mercedes      24
Heidfeld      BMW Sauber                20
Grosjean      Renault                   4

World Championship standings after round 14

The critical race result here means that Button is now 15pts ahead of Barrichello with only three races to go – Rubens has to outpoint his team mate by an average of 5pts per race, a very tall order but not impossible. If Button were to retire and Rubens win at his home track of Sao Paulo in Brazil, then the championship battle would be turned on its head.

And Vettel is 25pts behind – effectively out of the running, but not quite mathematically so just yet. He really needed the race win here, and the pit lane speeding mistake wrecked any such chance. If he doesn’t score 6pts more than Button in Japan, it’s game over for this year.

It’s already over for Mark Webber, who was eliminated after his brake failure and spin out of Singapore.

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        84        1.  Brawn-Mercedes        153
 2.  Barrichello   69        2.  Red Bull-Renault      110.5
 3.  Vettel        59        3.  Ferrari                62
 4.  Webber        51.5      4.  McLaren-Mercedes       59
 5.  Raikkonen     40        5.  Toyota                 46.5
 6.  Hamilton      37        6.  Williams-Toyota        30.5
 7.  Rosberg       30.5      7.  Renault                26
 8.  Alonso        26        8.  BMW Sauber             21
 9.  Glock         24        9.  Force India-Mercedes   13
10.  Trulli        22.5     10.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      5
11.  Kovalainen    22       
12.  Massa         22       
13.  Heidfeld      12       
14.  Kubica         9       
15.  Fisichella     8       
16.  Sutil          5       
17.  Buemi          3       
18.  Bourdais       2 

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