Issue 33: Singapore Grand Prix Review

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23 September 2014

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won a lights-to-flag victory after starting on pole. Nico Rosberg retired with an electronics malfunction. Sebastian Vettel narrowly beat Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso to second place with the Australian and the Spaniard coming in third and fourth respectively. The Williams, Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren fought for lower points places. Jean-Eric Vergne put in a sparkling drive to claim sixth place.

The swinging pendulum

The Singapore Grand Prix was not a spectacular race, but it was significant, not least for the World Championship. Singapore gave us a further twist in the tale of the drivers’ title as a 22-point lead for Nico Rosberg turned into a three-point deficit after his retirement due to a faulty wiring loom that affected his car’s electronics. Nonetheless, there were still tense moments after Rosberg’s exit, in particular following the race restart on Lap 38 after a safety car period. Would Hamilton still collect the win that had seemingly been handed to him on a plate? The Briton had to pit stop again whereas the Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso immediately behind we’re going to the end of the race. Could Hamilton build a pit stop advantage or would victory require him to overtake? Could Alonso find a way past the Red Bulls or would Vettel and Ricciardo manage to resist? This phase of the Grand Prix was gripping stuff.

On the night, three of F1’s top performers – Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel – showed what they were worth. Alonso dragged his Ferrari into contention for a podium finish, Vettel dug deep to (finally) beat his team-mate even though Ricciardo’s power unit output was hamstrung by an intermittent battery glitch. And Hamilton delivered a succession of quick laps to build a sufficient gap after the safety car period to pit and rejoin the race less than two seconds behind Vettel. The German could offer little resistance to Hamilton given the age of his tyres. However, as impressive as these world champions were, the drive of the race must surely go to Jean-Eric Vergne, if only for that final phase after his last pit stop on Lap 44. He overtook six cars to take a storming sixth. He even had enough in the tank to build the required five-second gap to 7th place in order to absorb a time penalty for an earlier transgression. True Vergne was on much fresher tyres than the cars he overtook, but the moves still had to be made.

A wildcard strikes…

As is always the case, the timing of safety car periods benefit some drivers and disadvantage others. In Singapore, the safety car period (Lap 31-38) was a boon for everyone who was marginal on fuel, e.g. Red Bull and Ferrari. According to the fuel consumption graphic on the FOM world feed, Red Bull and Alonso had used about 48-49kg of the maximum 100kg of fuel by half distance. In comparison, Hamilton had used approximately 44kg at the same point in the race. Project this rate of fuel usage forward and had there been no safety car, Red Bull and Alonso would have used about 97-98kg/100kg while the Mercedes would have used roughly 88-89kg/100kg. Quite a saving. This insight on its own shows the power of the Mercedes energy recovery system (ERS). In short, the safety car saved Ferrari and Red Bull from having to manage their fuel consumption rate in the second half of the race.

Hamilton, by contrast, lost out when the safety car was deployed. Specifically, his five-second lead was wiped out and he still had to pit to run the Soft compound tyre. After the restart, however, the Briton was able to rebuild and add to his lead by utilising the superior mechanical grip of the Supersoft tyres he was on and going on the attack while the Red Bulls and Alonso conserved their tyres to avoid having to pit again.

Alonso loses out on a podium

The threat to Hamilton came in the form of the Red Bulls switching strategy under the safety car. They had planned a third stop, but then scrubbed this in favour of making an attempt to get to the end of the race. Tough, but not impossible. This strategy switch meant that Vettel and Ricciardo kept track position over Alonso who had stopped for a third time immediately prior to the safety car period in an effort to undercut Red Bull. However, although initially it looked as if Alonso was a winner from the safety car deployment this turned into a losing position once Red Bull had made their strategy switch. Luck was not on Ferrari’s or Alonso’s side. That said, had there not been a safety car, it is debatable whether Alonso would still have made the podium. To do so would have meant the Spaniard resisting the Red Bulls on fresher tyres once they had made their third stop. Not impossible, but difficult. Third was probably the maximum Alonso could have expected as would have had a better chance of defending from the ailing Ricciardo than from Vettel.

The surprise about Alonso’s Singapore Grand Prix for me at least was how competitive he – and Raikkonen to a lesser extent – was. In part, this was the Alonso factor, but Ferrari clearly go better on the Supersoft tyre.

The ‘speedster’ versus the ‘thinking driver’

As we enter the denouement of the 2014 season, I defy anyone to confidently predict the identity of the 2014 world champion.

Three times this season Rosberg has seen his 25-point+ lead greatly reduced or turned into a deficit by a combination of Mercedes unreliability and Hamilton on the rebound. Now as we approach the final phase of the world championship the same inevitable comparisons between the contenders are being made by pundits and fans. Hamilton, we’re told, is faster and a better natural racer, especially in close-quarter racing. Rosberg, on the other hand, is calm, collected and consistent. In my view, both characterisations are sweeping generalisations and pretty limited in value. Hamilton has shown an ability to think his way round a Grand Prix this season on more than one occasion and four wins on the bounce in the early rounds is hardly the mark of inconsistency. Conversely, Rosberg has proven that he on occasion can find more speed in his W05 Hybrid than Hamilton. If they can be split on performance at the moment, it is that Hamilton has the momentum and Rosberg is on the back foot.

However, none of the above really matters that much in the event of unreliability. Unreliability is so influential this year because only two closely matched drivers driving the same car are in the title fight. DNFs are therefore expensive if your team-mate goes on to win. Hamilton has had three race retirements to Rosberg’s two and has had to start from the back of the grid twice this season due to mechanical failures in qualifying. If Rosberg is more consistent in 2014 it is largely because mechanically, he has had the opportunity to be more consistent than his team-mate.

Unreliability for Hamilton or Rosberg in the remaining races cannot be forecast or predicted. It is, in short, the wildcard. And given unreliability’s influence already this season, one more mechanical failure may be the knock-out blow to one of the title challengers. It is far from obvious who will ultimately triumph.

@TheWheelspinner

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