Formula One’s Euro-trip concluded a couple of weeks ago at Monza and the circus shifts eastward as we brace ourselves for round 14 of the championship with the Singapore Grand Prix. When it first appeared in the F1 calendar in 2008, it became an immediate success, striking the right chords with the F1 fraternity with its debut race. It’s amazing how rapidly it has earned an iconic status- it’s one of the most popular races and is easily the most extravagant event on the F1 calendar.
The circuit we are visiting this weekend is Marina Bay- F1’s first night race venue, a street-circuit and the brilliantly-lit cityscape backdrop at night makes this one a spectacle. It offers the typical challenges of a street circuit with its winding nature- a total of 23 corners, mostly slow speed and several being 90-degree corners. As is the case with Monaco, grip is at a premium with the teams running the highest downforce settings on the cars and they keep battling for the perfect setup as the bumpy track settles down over the weekend. Now, throw into the mix the ‘night’ factor, painfully long two-hour duration, the high humidity and ambient temperatures and a scorching tarmac- you’ve got yourself one of the toughest races in the season in terms of physical strength and stamina. It’s very demanding mentally as well as the track runs close to the sidewalls (practically zero run-offs) and hence the drivers have no margin for lapses.
Just one round apart, Marina Bay circuit is antithetical to the high-speed Monza-it’s one of the slowest on the calendar with an average speed of around 175 kmph and top-speed of about 300 kmph down the Raffles Boulevardheading into turn 7. The cars spend a shade less than 50 percent of the lap in full throttle and the large number of turns add up to about 80 gear-shifts per lap. We did mention the hot tarmac and that causes high thermal degradation of the tyres but the soft primes and the super-soft options on offer this weekend will suffice with two stops unless teams are particularly vary of the unpredictable Pirellis. The real issue with tyre management will come with regards to the timing of the stops- an attempt to stay that one lap more on the lap may see the tyres fall off the cliff causing dramatic loss of time.
In the run up to the qualifying, Seb Vettel dominated the early weekend sweeping all the practice sessions ahead of the McLarens. Alonso was in his usual range around the P3 to P5 mark as Ferrari struggled with the upgraded rear wings and eventually chose to ditch them for the remainder of the weekend. Lotus looked clearly off the pace even with their new floor and rear wing (sans the double DRS) and might only come into picture during the race courtesy the cars’ tyre management. Track position is of prime importance for race result as overtaking opportunities are few given the street layout.
Q1: The Lotus duo was the first to roll out followed by the rest of the field all on the prime compounds. There wasn’t any high-drama action- apart from a few incidents of under-braking on turn 10 vaulting the car over the kerbs and Senna brushing the retaining wall at the exit of turn 9 towards the end. There were no major upsets in Q1 although a dejected Kobayashi would like to differ on this one as he was forced into relegation in the dying stages by Vergne and Ricciardo. The session ended with Grosjean, DiResta and Raikkonen taking the top three slots.
Not making it into Q2: 18. K. Kobayashi (Sauber), 19. V. Petrov (Caterham), 20. H. Kovalainen (Caterham), 21. T. Glock (Marussia), 22. C. Pic (Marussia), 23. N. Karthikeyan (Hispania), 24. P. de la Rosa (Hispania)
Q2: After Q1, the stewards are investigating Webber as he may have impeded Glock’s run while Kobayashi reports over-steer. In Q2, Raikkonen was the first one out on the track with the option tyres on his car. Grosjean survived a little incident on turn 14 under-braking for the apex and thumped the tyre wall. He made it to the pits without much damage and was back later on in his bid for a slot in Q3. On the other hand, Senna wasn’t so fortunate when he ran wide on exiting turn 21 barging into the retainers on the outside and damaged his right-rear suspension that cut his session short. He qualified 17th as a result. All the teams were on the supersoft compounds for their final timed-runs. Maldonado, DiResta and Rosberg put together fine laps making it into Q3 potentially at the expense of Raikkonen and Massa. Hamilton was the quickest ahead of the Redbulls of Vettel and Webber.
Not taking further part: 11. N. Hulkenberg (ForceIndia), 12. K. Raikkonen (Lotus), 13. F. Massa (Ferrari), 14. S. Perez (Sauber), 15. D. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso), 16. J. Eric-Vergne (Torro Rosso), 17. B. Senna (Williams)
Q3: Teams with both the drivers in qualifying for Q3 i.e. McLaren, Mercedes and Redbull sent both cars out immediately and quite understandably so. Button was the first to set a time followed soon by Hamilton going approximately a full second faster. Grosjean, Alonso and Maldonado came with about three minutes to go. Maldonado set a scorching solitary time slotting P2. Alonso also on a single attempt, only managed P5 while DiResta put together a reasonable performance squeezing himself between Alonso and Webber at P6. Vettel and Button line up in the second row behind Hamilton and Maldonado. Mercedes duo manage P9 and P10 with Grosjean going eighth fastest.
Rounding up the top 10: 1. L. Hamilton (McLaren), 2. P. Maldonado (Williams), 3.S. Vettel (Redbull), 4. J. Button (McLaren), 5. F. Alonso (Ferrari), 6. P. DiResta (ForceIndia), 7. M. Webber (Redbull), 8. R. Grosjean (Lotus), 9.N. Rosberg (Mercedes), 10. M. Schumacher (Mercedes)
Heading into the race
It wasn’t much of a surprise to find a McLaren lining up first on the grid (raceday). The Woking team has hit a purple patch with three consecutive victories and it seems well focused at the task in hand amidst speculations surrounding next year’s lineup. With both the McLarens among top 4, opportunity is ripe for them to cut-off further from Redbull’s lead in the constructor’s championship with Loew assuring that Button’s fuel-pick up problem was well and truly a one-off incident.
After all the engine-mapping and engine failure issues, Horner probably had had enough and called on the Redbull engineers about two weeks back to throw everything into turning their fortune around. The efforts seemed to have paid off as the RB8s with all the upgrades and a new front wing seemed to have rediscovered their mojo atleast from what we have seen so far. While the upgrades were a welcome change of fortunes for Redbull, Ferrari and Lotus with their new rear-wings did not do them much good. While Ferrari was quick to revert to the old one, Lotus was still off the pace which was fortified by the outcomes of the qualifying session.
Monza’s wonder-kid Perez failed to make it to Q3 yet again while another driver finding his feet in the big league, Maldonado proved his mettle in the street circuit again after Monaco. With his innate aggression he might look to catch up with Hamilton in the early stages although temperament will be a key factor in this race for him given the tough driving conditions. While Vettel and Hamilton are setting pretty for this race and would look to knock-off a few points from his lead, for his own sake Alonso will be hoping for a replay of Valencia (a street circuit) and for all we know he might well emerge as the Dark Knight.
Published with permission from The Rational Pie.