F1: Round 15 – Singapore – September 26

Singapore saw Fernando Alonso supercharge his title bid with a dominant win, a lucky Mark Webber achieve a critical piece of damage limitation – and another out and out disaster for Lewis Hamilton.

Considering how hyped up it had been prior to the race, the start was relatively straightforward – Alonso getting off the line reasonably well and robustly covering off Sebastian Vettel against the wall on the inside line into turn 1. Vettel had had the better start, but once blocked was now reduced to sweeping across the track to fend off any attacks from Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button off the second row. It turned out that Lewis had the worst start of the front runners and had his hands full just keeping third place from his team mate into turn 1. Once it settled down, however, it looked as though everyone had got away cleanly, with Felipe Massa at the back after his qualifying problems and Jamie Alguersuari starting from pit lane after a water leak saw him fail to get to the grid on time. Massa sought to turn the situation to his advantage with am immediate pit stop at the end of lap 1 to discard the option tyres, hoping for a safety car to boost him up in the positions.

And sure enough, things were brewing in the midfield, with Nick Heidfeld clashing with both Force Indias – which left Heidfeld with a broken wing requiring a pit stop, and Tonio Liuzzi with serious suspension damage that saw him crawling to a halt on track just after the faux chicane of turn 10. The Force India was difficult to retrieve from here and a safety car was deployed.

Now came the major strategic moment of the evening: whether to follow Massa’s lead and get the pit stop out of the way, or whether that was asking too much of the tyres and opt to stay out. Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton and Button all opted to stay out, but Webber was into pit lane. In the end just ten cars opted to remain out on track, meaning Webber led the pit stoppers back in 11th place immediately behind Timo Glock and set for a lengthy period of frustration working his way through slow traffic.

Although Webber was soon past Glock at the restart, it was soon apparent that the leading four had vastly superior pace and were pulling away fast – possibly even fast enough to make pit stops under green at mid-race distance and still come out in front of Webber. The Aussie passed Kamui Kobayashi on lap 7 after the Japanese driver ran wide into turn 5, and then had the same good fortune with Michael Schumacher of all people gave him a similar opening four laps later to take the championship leader up to eighth place. Still, the leaders were getting away and his chances of retaining the world title lead appeared to be dwindling and Rubens Barrichello was proving an altogether more difficult obstacle to get past. Finally a scary moment on lap 23 when the car faltered under braking into turn 18 – needing some quick hands from Webber to avert disaster – persuaded Mark to ease up and take a breather.

The next stage of the race was, frankly, rather dull – the biggest entertainment on track was Glock in 11th holding up a huge train of clearly much faster cars, among them Adrian Sutil, Nico Hulkenberg, Felipe Massa, Vitaly Petrov, Sebastien Buemi and Jamie Alguersuari back in 17 all chomping at the bit to get past. Sutil was past on lap 15 but it took almost 7 laps before the dam finally broke and Glock was bundled down the running order.

Alonso was setting fastest laps at the front and stretching out a 3.4s lead over Vettel, who was claiming to be taking it easy in second. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, was being urged to speed up by as much as half a second if he wanted to pull out the requisite 28s over Webber for a pit stop: and he wasn’t able to, the option tyres starting to go off as they approached mid race distance. Indeed, Webber was now starting to cut the time between himself and both McLarens and every extra lap was costing Lewis and Jenson time and track position: on lap 29, Hamilton came in for new rubber.

No one had been expecting Alonso or Vettel in, but a lap later they surprised everyone by not only coming in, but coming in together rather than trying to find tactics to jump one another. It’s possible that they were both reacting to McLaren’s move – Button was also in on lap 30 – and failed to notice that their main rival was also coming in. It was an opportunity lost for Red Bull, especially when Vettel had a sluggish getaway from the pit box which saw him almost stall, and it pretty much sealed the win for Alonso there and then. Unless there were any major incidents and upsets.

Singapore is an endurance circuit, both in terms of the oppressive humidity taking its toll and the fact that the running time is pushed to almost two hours compared with 80 minutes at Monza; the twist and turns of the street track make overtaking something of an impossible dream unless between massively mismatched cars (such as Webber on Glock) or by mistake (Webber again on Kobayashi and Schumacher.) So by the time we got to lap 31 with relatively little incident and on-track battles few and far between, it already seemed like this race had been running forever and was overstaying its welcome. But no matter – things were about to get a lot more entertaining as the endurance conditions started to take their toll on drivers and machines.

It started with an attempt by Kobayashi down the inside of Schumacher that resulted in heavy side contact that sent Schumacher sliding across and making rear end contact with the tyre wall; Schumacher was into the pits next time around, but Kobayashi tried to stay out and paid for it when his front wing failed exiting turn 18 leaving him understeering straight into the barrier. The next car through was Bruno Senna, and without the warning of yellow flags he ploughed straight into the side of the stricken Sauber leaving an even bigger road block to the following cars. Small wonder, then, that an immediate safety car was deployed.

With the field compressed for the restart, McLaren saw the opportunity to tell their freshly-rubbered drivers to push Webber, whose own tyres were almost half a race old. Hamilton did exactly that, getting into the draft of the Red Bull as Webber dealt with some lapped traffic, and then popping out to pass him on the outside line. It looked a done deal, Hamilton ahead of Webber into the corner, but then Webber’s front right wheel connected with Hamilton’s rear left and the McLaren went bouncing over the kerbing – and then crawled into a run-off area, the car crippled beyond repair. Hamilton threw the steering wheel out in disgust, devastated by the serious damage this does to his title big (and indeed to McLaren’s prospects in the constructors’ championship.)

It was also a nerve-wracking moment for Webber, who feared wing or suspension damage on his own car, but the team reported that it was all looking okay – and certainly for the rest of the race he was able to easily control any challenges from Jenson Button who had inherited fourth from his departed team mate. When the cars lined up parc fermé, shots of Webber’s front right wheel – the one that had connected with Hamilton’s car – was startling bent, to the point where it was almost impossible to believe that the car had been drivable. The magnitude of Webber’s luck here was clear for all to see: it’s the kind of stroke of good fortune that can win world championships.

There were more incidents to come: on lap 39 there was another collision at turn 7, this time between Schumacher and Nick Heidfeld. Heidfeld was punted into the barrier while Schumacher spun, briefly pointing the wrong way before betting back underway with a damaged front wing that required a costly pit stop that saw him finish a lap down.

Then on lap 46, Robert Kubica – running a strong 6th – suddenly returned to the pits despite having made his scheduled stop under the previous safety car period. It seemed that a low puncture had cost him any shot of points, but that wasn’t how Kubica saw it: he was soon back on track and determined to recover as many lost positions as possible, starting with Alguersuari for 12th on lap 48 and then laying siege to Sebastien Buemi, whose rude defence lasted until lap 52 before Kubica was able to apply the superior Renault power to best effect. Kubica’s team mate Petrov put up no opposition over the Anderson bridge on lap 53, and overtaking Massa on lap 54 was child’s play compared with Buemi as the Ferrari second driver was clearly struggling on the tyres he had taken on back at the end of lap 2. Kubica was on a roll and next lap around he was past Hulkenberg, and later that same lap he pulled off perhaps the best move of all to breeze around the sole remaining Force India of Adrian Sutil. In less that ten laps, Kubica recovered all but one of the positions he’d lost from his enforced pit stop: only Rubens Barrichello remained out of reach, some thirty seconds up the road which was too much to make up in the time remaining.

With the final laps just squeaking in under the two hour time limit, the sole remaining close race on track was between Heikki Kovalainen and Sebastien Buemi for 13th following a late pit stop for the Toro Rosso. The two made contact after Buemi tried an overtaking move, spinning the Lotus and seemingly severing fuel lines within the bodywork. Kovalainen and the team appeared not to notice how serious the damage was, and despite having the option to come into the pits Heikki continued on round to the pit straight – before suddenly realising that the back of the car was now seriously on fire, flames everywhere. Kovalainen pulled up against the pit wall and jumped out, and appealed for a fire extinguisher from the Williams team the other side of the wire fence before calmly setting about tackling the developing inferno as cars raced past at nearly two hundred miles per hour by just feet away, even under waved yellows.

The waved yellows put the final corner out of commission for any last gasp overtaking moves on the final two laps, and it was not entirely a moot point as Vettel had closed right up on the back of Alonso and looked to pull off a last minute ambush. Alonso was having none of it, however, and never gave Vettel that slightest opportunity to make the move – and minutes later he took the chequered flag for a perfect victory over the two Red Bulls.

Standing on the podium, all three looked exhausted and dehydrated to the point of illness. But something else was shining from Fernando Alonso’s face: not just a sense of victory, but of destiny and steely-eyed determination. If one man up there was convinced beyond doubt that he was on the way to a world championship, it was the Spaniard who has now moved up to second in the points.

Webber might still be in the lead, and there are still only 25pts (one race victory) between the top five contenders, but the balance of power in the 2010 season just swung a little bit more in Maranello’s favour. And if we really do lose one of the remaining four races of the year (Korea’s readiness is said to be doubt) then it really could be the team with the momentum – Ferrari – who clinch the championship in November.

Race result

Pos Driver      Team                 Time
 1. Alonso      Ferrari             1:57:53.579
 2. Vettel      Red Bull-Renault     +    0.293
 3. Webber      Red Bull-Renault     +   29.141
 4. Button      McLaren-Mercedes     +   30.384
 5. Rosberg     Mercedes             +   49.394
 6. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth    +   56.101
 7. Kubica      Renault              + 1:26.559
 8. Massa       Ferrari              + 1:53.297
 9. Sutil       Force India-Mercedes + 2:12.416 *
10. Hulkenberg  Williams-Cosworth    + 2:12.791 **
11. Petrov      Renault              + 1 lap
12. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari   + 1 lap
13. Schumacher  Mercedes             + 1 lap
14. Buemi       Toro Rosso-Ferrari   + 1 lap
15. Di Grassi   Virgin-Cosworth      + 2 laps
16. Kovalainen  Lotus-Cosworth       + 3 laps

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:47.976
* includes 20s penalty for cutting turn 7 on lap 1
** includes 20s penalty for leaving the track on lap 1

Not classified/retirements:

Driver    Team                 Lap
Glock     Virgin-Cosworth      51
Heidfeld  Sauber-Ferrari       35
Hamilton  McLaren-Mercedes     34
Klien     HRT-Cosworth         30
Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari       29
Senna     HRT-Cosworth         28
Trulli    Lotus-Cosworth       26
Liuzzi    Force India-Mercedes  1

World Championship standings, round 15

Drivers:              Constructors:             
 1. Webber      202   1. Red Bull-Renault     383
 2. Alonso      191   2. McLaren-Mercedes     359
 3. Hamilton    182   3. Ferrari              319
 4. Vettel      181   4. Mercedes             168
 5. Button      177   5. Renault              133
 6. Massa       128   6. Force India-Mercedes  60
 7. Rosberg     122   7. Williams-Cosworth     56
 8. Kubica      114   8. Sauber-Ferrari        27
 9. Sutil        47   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    10
10. Schumacher   46  
11. Barrichello  39  
12. Kobayashi    21  
13. Petrov       19  
14. Hulkenberg   17 
15. Liuzzi       13  
16. Buemi         7  
17. De la Rosa    6  
18. Alguersuari   3 
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